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Sponsorship doesn’t make a conference better – or cheaper

It’s intensely satisfying (but all too frequently rare in my case) to be presented with irrefutable evidence that you are right. And so, in a moment of smug triumphalism, I can declare as truth a long held belief of mine: industry sponsorship is not the life-sustaining force that medical education depends upon. Doctors really will pay for their own education after all.

I can’t be the only one to have believed this, but I have always been told that doctors are too tight-fisted to pay the going rate themselves, that the sponsorship is a necessary evil to keep fees down, or else no-one will come. I have also heard the much discounted claim that we’re too clever to be influenced by pharmaceutical reps.

I now know these arguments to be rubbish, because I have a case-control study to report. The numbers might be small (n=1 in each arm of the study) and the analysis might be open to the criticism that it is the subjective interpretation of a single individual with socialist tendencies (me). But I still think you will find the evidence compelling.

The striking difference between the two conferences I’ve attended recently was that one (the case) had absolutely no sponsorship, while the other (the control) had adverts in the programme, silver sponsors and an exhibition of stands we were expected to browse during breaks. I won’t name the conferences, as I don’t want to single out one event – and both were excellent, stimulating meetings that I would recommend to anyone.

So did the silver sponsors result in a silver service, compared with a budget-brand experience without them? In a word – no.

The two arms in my trial were matched in terms of length and stature, with both being two and a half days long and attracting an international audience.

Both were held in the UK in excellent, modern facilities.

Both (unusually) had excellent free wifi, with the control winning on the grounds that no password was required (although the case got bonus points when I found I could still use it in my hotel room).

Far from being ‘bargain basement’, the case provided far better food – with sit-down meals at lunchtime, plenty of it and biscuits available at every break, while the control left me raiding one of the exhibition stands for an emergency banana, and in need of a chocolate-finding expedition in the afternoon.

If economies of scale have any impact on cost, then the control in my study should have the edge, having four times the number of delegates (I also received a members discount on my ticket).

So how much extra did I have to pay for the privilege of learning in a sponsor-free zone?

Well, the fact is the conference without sponsorship was £59 cheaper than its comparator. What is more, it sold out three months early while the bigger, costlier, sponsored conference was still advertising spaces until the last minute.

So what has my piece of impromptu research shown? Well, like all good research you have to sum up by concluding that more work is needed. Was this just a one off? Can other conferences replicate the findings? What did all that sponsorship money get spent on if it didn’t reduce the cost of my ticket?

Whatever the answers to these questions, though, we can definitely conclude one thing: high quality education without sponsorship is possible, and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.  

Dr Martin Brunet is a GP in Guildford and programme director of the Guildford GPVTS. You can tweet him @DocMartin68.