While there was a time when certified continuing medical education (CME) was considered part of a pharmaceutical promotional campaign, it is far from that today. Although it is true that approximately 35-40% of CME delivered to healthcare professionals today is supported by unrestricted grants provided by the pharmaceutical industry, pharma companies are not permitted to have any influence whatsoever on the content (and haven’t for several years). In essence, CME is the purest form of ethical education. Why then, if the tenets of “ethical promotional education” and CME are no longer considerably different, would a pharmaceutical company spend money on promotional education rather than CME?

The obvious answer is that companies want to control the messaging and position their product (or products) appropriately. Certainly, there is a trust factor involved in CME—because the pharma company that funds CME cannot influence the education, it must be confident that the organizations who receive grant funding are not wasting it on inappropriate or ineffective education. Fortunately, CME providers are not rogue organizations who play without strict rules. They are all governed by multiple accrediting bodies—and are required to go through a strenuous recertification process to maintain their accreditation status every few years. Many have been involved in educating healthcare professionals for decades, and do not take their roles lightly. At the end of the day, the goal is the same—to make sure everything pharmaceutical companies do aims at the end goal of improving the lives of today’s and tomorrow’s patients.

Multiple studies have shown that healthcare professionals recognize and respect the value of the fair-balanced content developed by organizations certified to provide accredited medical education. There is a clear line in their minds that delineates promotional education from CME, and this distinction must not be undervalued.

We believe that the process for developing meaningful and useful CME is not unlike the steps necessary to creating “ethical promotional education.” A strong need for education is established. Provider gaps in knowledge, competence, or performance are identified. And adult learning principles are employed to create the most effective format with which to deliver the education. Content is then developed, content that is scientifically rigorous, evidence-based, and therapeutically balanced. Educational initiatives are often developed that touch learners at multiple times and in multiple ways. Gone are the days in CME when a simple didactic dinner program is deemed “good enough” to impact anyone in a meaningful manner.

What further differentiates CME from “ethical promotional education” is that learners are required to pass post-tests in order to receive their CME credit. In this way, CME providers are able to collect data showing how effective the education was, what changes in behavior (if any) it elicited, and, in the best scenarios, how the education has directly affected patient care. This valuable data is then used to identify further educational gaps or barriers and can be shared with all stakeholders—faculty, learners, the pharmaceutical companies that help to support the education, and the broader world of healthcare providers.

CME has value to the pharmaceutical industry, providing healthcare professionals with trusted, quality education on a variety of vital topics. And it does all this while generating valuable data that can benefit all stakeholders—pharma funders, healthcare professionals, and, most important, the patients they both serve.

DISCLAIMER: The Guest Commentary page allows contributors to voice their opinions on important issues that affect the industry. The views of the authors are their own and are not necessarily those of PM360 and its staff.

  • Cathy Pagano, CCMEP, is president of the Institute for Continuing Healthcare Education, an accredited provider of continuing medical education since 1986, dedicated to improving patient outcomes by developing innovative and effective education for the healthcare community that is scientifically rigorous, fair-balanced, and unbiased.