by Robert Stern, MA, CCMEP
Almost a decade ago, I had a simple idea — deliver fast, accurate medical news to clinicians in a format that was easily accessible, and turn that news into a “teachable moment.” Almost five years ago, that idea became reality with the launch of MedPage Today.
Monday through Friday (and if news is happening, Saturday and Sunday, too), MedPage Today delivers on our promise of “Putting Breaking Medical News into Practice.”
Our reporters and editors not only scan prepublication copies of top medical journals seeking medical news that is likely to influence daily clinical practice, but also travel worldwide to report medical news delivered at scientific meetings.
These gatherings are important as a primary source of medical information. New medical information, or as we call it: News.
These gatherings are organized and managed by professional societies at the international, national, and state level.
In the main, the meeting sponsors are nonprofit organizations.
In this role, the sponsoring societies attempt to control every aspect of the meeting. This week, Open Access Week, seems an appropriate time to address the situation.
The societies’ attempts at controlling the meeting are usually successful — sometimes so successful that they become de facto controllers of the news. News they do not own.
They do this by either blocking access to research findings, or by granting only limited access to those findings.
Now to the uneducated this may seem a small matter, but it’s not.
Let me give you a comparison. The National Football League (NFL) allows only limited coverage of their games and access to local press. They want to control the news flow and the profits that come from it. The NFL is a private enterprise and, as such, can and does decide who enters their private world and who doesn’t.
It may seem unfair and unreasonable, but the NFL created the “content,” which means that it owns that content.
In a free-enterprise system, the content creator has rights and privileges to protect its investment and product.
Medical societies on the other hand, with rare exceptions such as guidelines statements, do not create or own the findings reported at their meetings.
This is because much of the research reported at medical meetings is the product of funding given to researchers by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Centers for Medicare/Medicaid Services (CMS).
In other words, research bought and paid for with taxpayer dollars.
What isn’t funded by taxpayers is usually funded by industry — pharmaceutical companies, device companies, and biotech companies.
As meeting organizers, the societies provide venues to researchers to present research funded by entities other than the meeting sponsors.
And there is both work and cost involved in creating that venue.
OK, I’ll give them that.
My beef is with medical societies that attempt to move beyond creating a venue into controlling the media.
When MedPage Today wants to send our reporters to cover a medical meeting, we must first file an application with the association’s press office to received press credentials. This is standard procedure, and by this process organizations attempt to guarantee that only legitimate news organizations, rather than public relations firms, interest groups, and self-promoters occupy the limited space in press rooms.
These credentials offer a huge advantage to the reporters covering a large medical meeting: access to experts, press releases, press conference attendance, advanced meeting materials, photo and video opportunities, work space, etc.
Without this access it is almost impossible to cover in real time as our reporters do at MedPage Today providing high quality reporting — text and video — as well as needed perspective, context, and balance.
So far so good.
But beyond merely confirming the legitimacy of a news operation, some large medical societies create obstacles to news operations like MedPage Today.
Because societies compete for CME dollars based on the content presented at their medical meetings, and MedPage Today, as part of our core mission, offers continuing medical credits for physician, nurse, and pharmacist readers based on the news articles written by our reporters.
The societies view us as competition, but we at MedPage Today view our CME effort — a mere quarter hour per article — as a value added to our readers who view this as a useful way to accumulate the CME/CE credits.
To protect their own commercial interests, the societies attempt to block us from reporting on the “content” presented at “their” meetings, keeping it for their exclusive use. This despite the fact that they don’t “own” said content.
How does this protectionism work? Several ways, and we’ve encountered most of them.
For example, one society said we had to conform to a ratio: three non-CME news stories for each one story that offered CME credit. We worked with that limit for several years, and were rewarded: this year, the limit was increased to 4:1.
Another society says no news with CME. None, nada.
Failure to abide means potentially being barred from receiving future press credentials. We learned this painful lesson when the society said we violated “an agreement,” although we were not advised of it in advance of the meeting.
The NIH recently came to terms with the issue of open access to medical publications. This compromise was worked out by legislating how long publishers can keep their published research out of the public domain, although medical meetings seem to have been forgotten in the legislative wrangling.
MedPage Today strongly protests the treatment of its editors and journalists by some societies and will continue to advocate, lobby, and litigate — if necessary — to gain access to content that we believe the public owns.
We believe that this is a problem not just for MedPage Today, but also for anyone who wants medical professionals to have access to important and timely medical news.
Robert Stern is CEO of MedPage Today.
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