Free Tablets for All at Medical Conferences?

MedPage Today – by Todd Neale

In a possible sign of things to come for major medical meetings, all paid registrants for the Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics (TCT) conference coming up next month in San Francisco will be given a Samsung tablet computer that they can keep when the meeting ends.

The device “will be loaded with the official TCT conference app and other interactive tools to deliver exceptional education, training, and high-quality content throughout the meeting,” according to an email announcing the initiative. 

The tablets will be provided by the Cardiovascular Research Foundation (CRF) — the nonprofit organization that sponsors the meeting.

CRF itself receives much of its funding from industry sources and the annual TCT meeting is partially funded by drug and device manufacturers — as are most major medical meetings. But the tablets will be provided without “direct industry support,” Irma Damhuis, CRF’s director of external relations, said in an email to MedPage Today.

There won’t be any industry content on the tablets, although some of the meeting apps will include “a limited number of ads,” she said.

The cost of the tablets is not included in the registration fee and will be offset by eliminating certain materials traditionally provided to meeting attendees, including printed programs and conference bags, Damhuis said, noting that any actual cost savings can’t be calculated until after registration is complete.

“CRF has made a significant investment in the future of medical education and training by purchasing the tablets for TCT in order to provide a digital platform for education for the attendees,” Damhuis said.

“This initiative is in honor of the 25th anniversary of TCT, and is part of CRF’s overall long-term digital strategy to innovate and enhance medical education,” she said. “The goal is to optimize the educational experience and enrich learning for all meeting participants, making it more interactive, dynamic, and informative.”

Potential Conflict of Interest?

In terms of exposure to the influence of industry, there does not appear to be a big difference between providing doctors with tablets and using more traditional meeting materials because all major meetings put attendees in contact with industry representatives, according to Michael Carome, MD, director of the Health Research Group for the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“The fact that they’re giving away tablets in lieu of written material for the agenda and other information they would normally hand out is sort of a neutral event,” he said in an interview with MedPage Today.

“My guess is a lot of meetings are going to go this route, where they try to save on paper and the cost of printing and other things,” he said. “The cost of tablets is going down, they probably buy them in bulk, and that saves costs.”

That the attendees will get to keep the tablets after the meeting doesn’t immediately raise any red flags, Carome added.

Will Other Societies Follow Suit?

The American Heart Association declined to comment for this story, but a representative from the American College of Cardiology said the college has explored going the tablet route for its annual meeting.

“We have had discussions with Samsung and other providers about this kind of program and decided instead to invest in innovative programs that attendees can engage with using their own devices,” Mary Ellen Beliveau, ACC’s chief learning officer for professional development and education, said in an emailed statement. “For the ACC, leveraging technology to bring more exciting and engaging sessions using the devices attendees already have is the preferred approach.”

Keeping costs down for meeting attendees appeared to play into the decision.

“A device giveaway is not something that would be sponsored by industry, and we decided that this was not a cost we would want to pass on to attendees through higher fees,” Beliveau said.

She noted that the ACC has adopted a more digital approach to providing information at meetings.

“In recent years, the ACC has been moving away from the paper program, and we’re finding that our attendees have embraced the new way of using applications on their electronic device of choice to customize the meeting experience and track their educational activities,” she said. “We do get industry support for our applications just like we had support for our old program books.”

The American Society of Clinical Oncology did not respond to a request for comment.

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