Medical conference organizers
A vast majority of the medical conferences being organized in the country these days have very little scientific contents but mostly turn out to be social get-togethers for healthcare professionals and their families all paid for by the pharmaceutical trade and industry. Of course there are a few exceptions as well. In fact it all depends on the leadership of these professional specialty organizations and the organizers. If their main objective is continuing medical education and academics they give importance to the scientific programme but those who are more interested in socializing, the scientific contents of those events are very little. In the recent past the Rheumatology conference organized by Pakistan Society of Rheumatology at Lahore and SAFES SUMMIT-II organized by South Asian Federation of Endocrine Societies at Dhaka Bangladesh had excellent scientific programmes where one also saw an excellent team work. Most of the organizers do not bother to follow professional ethics. Unethical practices are rampant at the conferences and some healthcare professionals have made it a business to make money by organizing such academic events.
These things have been pointed out time and again but unfortunately it has had no effect so far and these unethical practices are becoming more and more prevalent. The pharmaceutical trade and industry is also fed up with these undue demands from such conference organizers but being in a vulnerable position, they just keep quiet most of the time though a few have started resisting such pressures. Some of the conference organizers have come up with Platinum, Gold and Silver sponsorships which are all gimmicks to extract money from the industry. Pharma industry all over the world sponsors such academic activities but there has got to be a limit on demands from the industry. I am against such meetings being organized at Five Star Hotels and if due to some security reasons or other concerns, there is no other option and these events have to be organized at these venues, even then the expenditures can be reduced to a great extent by restricting the participation to genuine delegates and not allowing them to bring in their families and children to such occasions which does create lot of problems.
When you go to such meeting and point out these unethical practices, many people get annoyed. Little do they realize that the Pharma industry eventually passes it on to the poor patients who have to pay all this in the form of higher cost of drugs and services? National Bioethics Committee formed by the Government of Pakistan has formulated Guidelines on Physicians interaction with Pharma Trade and Industry which covers all these issues but it is not being implemented. Some professional societies have also come up with their own Code of Ethics and Guidelines but since they are not implemented in letter and spirit, it is of no use. For the last one year or so, I have been thinking that may be one of the options is that one should not go to these meetings and ignore them because if you go and do not point out these unethical practices, you also become a part of this crime.
At the recently concluded 18th annual symposium of Pakistan Hypertension League most of these issues were once again discussed in detail in the General Body meeting. While it is heartening to note that some of the unethical practices highlighted in the past have been taken care of and one no more sees drugs banners in the conference halls, the menace of industry sponsored Lucky Draws in the scientific sessions have been done away with, there remains a lot more to be done. Prof. Abdus Samad needs to be commended for having summed up the situation in his usual style when he advised the professional specialty organizations and healthcare professionals to accept willing donations, financial assistance for these academic activities from the Pharma industry but refrain from coercing, threatening and extracting funding from the industry because if you do that it no more remains a donation but comes into the category of Bhatta. People do not like those who collect Bhatta hence conference organizers should refrain from such acts, he remarked.
Dr. Bilal Mohayudin from Punjab Institute of Cardiology suggested that every speaker in the conference should be asked to make a declaration as to who has sponsored him/her and what is their other conflict of interests. All these things have also been covered in the NBC Guidelines. Speaking in the GB meeting of PHL I had also highlighted some of these issues including ensuring democratic traditions and said that as long as I am a member of PHL and they tolerate me, I will keep on pointing out these things and the day they feel, I will say Good Bye and do not come to the meeting as there is lot of more useful work to do. I had also suggested that the organizers should ensure quality of the scientific programme, have few presentations which should be approved by the scientific committee and have enough time for discussion. Not only that, the practice of presenting mementoes and shields to everyone should be stopped. It can be presented to a few selected ones i.e. Chief Guest or Guest of Honour etc. The money thus saved should be put to some better use.
However, I had to face a very embarrassing situation in the last session of the PHL symposium. It so happened that since I had to catch a flight to Karachi on August 16th in the afternoon, I told Prof. Saeed Sangi Co-Convener of the symposium that I was leaving and make sure to send me a few photographs of the event. He asked me to wait as he has to make an announcement. While Dr. Bilal Mohayudin was starting his presentation he requested him to stop for a while and then called my name to come and receive the symposium memento. I was just taken by surprise and it became more embarrassing when Dr. Bilal Mohayudin remarked that ”he is the same gentleman who was asking to do away with this in the GB meeting”. Had I refused to accept the memento, it would have put Prof. Saeed Sangi in a very embarrassing situation. Just to save him, I decided to put myself in this embarrassing situation but I did say that even this won’t change my views. While I thank Prof. Saeed Sangi for this respect and was grateful to Prof. A. Hafeez Chaudhry President of Pakistan Hypertension League who sponsored my accommodation, I still believe that conference organizers should give a serious thought to reduce the expenditures of such academic events doing away with Gala Dinners, Musical Evenings and money thus saved should be used to renovate equip some wards, improve and expand the services for the patients or sponsor some research projects. For the last three years Pulse International is running in loss and we are subsidizing its publication from Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences. That is why since 2005, we made it clear by publishing an announcement on the front page and expect the conference organizers to either sponsor our participation in these events or they can send us conference proceedings prepared by one of the organizers with some pictures so that these events are covered. Some conference organizers opt for this while a few, who are keen and wish us to cover the events ourselves, do sponsor our participation. It is all transparent since we had announced this arrangement many years ago.