Key Messages from the 2021 Virtual Pharmaceutical Compliance Congress (And How the Messages Affect Your Compliance Curriculum)

In what was hopefully the last of the “virtual” compliance conferences (fingers and toes crossed), the 2021 Pharmaceutical Compliance Congress (PCC) offered time-tested and established standards (insert “tone from the top” and “ethics-based approach” here), thankfully blended with new best practices, trends, and suggestions from an impressive list of industry executives and government representatives. Some of the key messages from the three-day conference are listed below, along with my thoughts on how those concepts affect your training curriculum in 2021 and beyond.  

1. OIG’s Special Fraud Alert on Speaker Programs still ripples across the industry.

The comments surrounding the OIG’s Fraud Alert released last November certainly were not revelatory, but the fact that industry insiders and regulators are still stressing its importance is meaningful. The Alert was referenced right out of the gate in the presentation by Jim Stansel of PhRMA, and one presenter in the Enforcement Trends presentation summarized its impact by saying, “OIG has thrown down the gauntlet on speaker programs with the Fraud Alert.” As the industry moves away from virtual engagements toward more in-person programs, expect intensified scrutiny.

Speaker programs remain a hot topic for enforcement, and as the industry emerges from the pandemic, your learners need refresher training on the foundational rules of compliant speaker programs and the key concepts associated with those programs. We can help, with our recently updated PharmaCertify Foundations eLearning module, Managing Speaker Program Risk.

2. Data is your friend. (Or should that be “Data are your friend? That one always confuses me.)

The need to scrutinize data has been a recurring topic of conversation, and this year’s PCC was no exception. Having access to data in the right form and unitizing that data to identify trends and outliers is key to an effective compliance program. “Be proactive to dig deep into the data,” one presenter at the Chief Compliance Officer Showcase on Day 1 suggested, “and identify field personnel who are consistently right at the meal limits.”

In life sciences compliance, the devil is in the data, and an informed evaluation of data is critical when updating and optimizing your compliance training curriculum. What is the data telling you? If you’re seeing concerning trends, you’ve got a training challenge. And if you’re not seeing any trends, you’re probably not looking hard enough, or you’re not gathering the right data. As my colleague, Dan O’Connor, pointed out in the Creative Compliance Training Solutions presentation, “when you send out post-training surveys, don’t ask the learners if they liked the training, focus on what they learned and ask them what they can apply in their jobs.” The data is out there, you just have to find it.

3. An ounce of compliance prevention is worth a pound of effectiveness.

In the Former Prosecutor Panel, one presenter emphasized the need to proactively address issues, whether a company is establishing its compliance program or reinforcing important policies as the business evolves. “Getting legal advice on the front of the program is important,” he says, “and when you move back to live interactions, refresh employees on the perils of speaker programs.”

No matter the topic, an adaptive approach to learning is the most effective way to ensure your audience is mastering the concepts and policies. Retention is enhanced when training is rolled out on a continuous basis, in the form of microlearning nuggets, where learners are asked to repeatedly demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. You will sleep better knowing you’ve taken steps to reduce risk.

4. Join in the innovation.

During the Chief Compliance Officer Luminary Panel, one presenter pointed out that the pandemic has forced companies to be innovative in how they navigate business activities, and she reminded the audience that the compliance department “should play a big role in that innovation.” The day of compliance and business operating in siloed fashion are long over. “A seat at the table” is no longer a hopeful cliché randomly mentioned at compliance conferences. To facilitate a true partnership under which compliance polices and best practices are integrated into the daily activities of the workforce, everyone involved needs to understand that risk tolerance in the industry has changed, and the only way to reduce that risk is through a unified spirit of collaboration and innovation.

That notion of cooperation and collaboration extends to training. When compliance training and concepts are integrated regularly into each employee’s full curriculum and daily work, learning is enhanced and stronger ethical cultures are forged. And as was referenced on Day 1 of the conference, statistics from the Ethisphere Institute, an organization focused on defining and measuring corporate ethical standards, show that companies with strong ethical cultures perform better.

5. Evaluate your vendors’ compliance programs as part of your due diligence.

The idea of conducting due diligence before hiring third-party vendors has long been espoused at compliance conferences. But I was intrigued to hear a presenter in the Fireside Chat with CCOs suggest an even deeper dive into a vendor’s compliance program to evaluate whether its practices and principles align with those of your company.

On the training front, that includes a thorough evaluation of the vendor’s compliance training program. Do they cover the high-risk topics pertinent to your company and its products? Do they conduct compliance training in general? How often do they train their employees? How accurate and focused is that training in terms of content? These are the type of questions that need to be incorporated into your third-party vendor risk questionnaire and considered before the contracts are signed.

6. The Sunshine Act rises again.

Too often, life sciences professionals regard Sunshine Act/Open Payments training as a “one and done” event. But as presenters in the Analysis of OIG Special Fraud Alert on Speaker Programs and Assessment of Future Activities session pointed out, Medtronic’s recent settlement with the OIG included a payment to resolve allegations that it failed to accurately report payments to CMS. This topic is too big and too risky to not being training more aggressively.

In addition to refreshing the content in our Compliance Foundations module, The Sunshine Act and Open Payments, we recently added The Sunshine Act Payment Categories QuickTake module to our library of customizable off-the-shelf products. The five-minute module is the perfect complement and reinforcement course to the foundational training, which covers the topic at a higher level.

7. The pandemic is not an excuse.

The notion that the pandemic does not give companies an excuse to lose sight of compliance was repeated daily throughout the conference. Industry leaders and government representatives reminded the audience that the shift to virtual interactions and programs will not be viewed as justification for breaking the law or acting in bad faith. Even though the way in which business is conducted has changed, the core principles and rules governing compliance have not.

The same holds true for your training curriculum. Don’t use the pandemic as an excuse to “put off” searching for ways to enhance training and increase engagement. In fact, you should be doing just the opposite as the industry shifts back to more live interactions. We can help with our Compliance Curriculum Analysis Process (CCAP), which is a comprehensive process to identify training gaps and reinforcement opportunities in your training components.

8. Expect continuing focus on foundations and copay assistance.

Enforcement trends around patient support programs and foundations are growing. It’s a topic on the minds of regulators and routinely on compliance conference agendas. As one of the presenters in the Keynote Enforcement Panel on Emerging Trends Enforcement put it, “we are seeing a ton of copay assistance cases in our district.”

Emphasis needs to be placed on patient program training. And to borrow a phrase, we’ve got a module for that. The Compliance Foundations module, Patient Programs and Their Risks, is a great starting point. Module topics include protecting patient privacy, discussing programs with HCPs, working with vendors, and a topic that is top of mind in life sciences – donations to foundations.  

Conclusion

The organizers of the virtual PCC have made the main stage and on-demand sessions available until May 29 for attendees. If you were there, I highly recommend you visit the conference site for content you may have missed or to revisit the sessions most relevant to you and your company. It’s one of the perks of attending a virtual event.   

While Informa made every effort to replicate the look, agenda, and networking opportunities associated with a live event, it cannot match the on-site conference experience. Fortunately, I am told Informa is planning a live conference for the fall, which will be welcomed news if the dates don’t conflict with those of the Pharmaceutical Compliance Forum’s conference. Bring on the real thing!

Thanks for reading; I look forward to seeing you “live and in person” at a conference before too long!

Sean Murphy
PharmaCertify by NXLevel Solutions

Jen Anderson of Vertex, Jackie Parris of Incyte, and Dan O’Connor of PharmaCertify present during the Creative Compliance Training Solutions session at the virtual 2021 Pharmaceutical Compliance Congress.

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