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You and Vendors Stop Groping Each Other — Pass on Swag, Keep Your Integrity

March 26, 2008 News 5 Comments

Inside Healthcare Computing has graciously agreed to make previous Mr. HIStalk editorials available from its newsletter as a weekly "Best Of" series for HIStalk. This editorial originally appeared in the newsletter in September 2006. Inside Healthcare Computing subscribers receive a new editorial every week in their Electronic Update.

Stanford Hospital last week joined the growing number of academic medical centers that prohibit their physicians from accepting gifts from drug company salespeople. The reps aren’t even allowed on campus, except by appointment to conduct product inservices.

Bravo to Stanford. Physicians think they’re too savvy to be influenced by free lunches, rounds of golf, or drug samples, but drug companies know better – subtle bribery works. If it didn’t, they’d stop. A $100 staff lunch influences even a $500K a year doctor whose prescriptions for one medical condition might generate thousands of dollars a week of business for the drug company.

I’ve taken my share of IT vendor goodies: junkets, executive dinners, trips on private jets, and one memorable evening spent in an internationally known billionaire’s back yard. Having thereby flouted the rules of propriety myself, I’m qualified to issue my first-ever standards of conduct for CIOs and other provider-side executives.

The most important fact is this: it doesn’t matter whether your acceptance of vendor swag is improper; it matters only that it might appear improper to an outsider, like the attorney of a bid-losing vendor who’s suing you for tortuous interference or the 60 Minutes camera crew accosting you on your way to drop the kids off at school.

It’s obvious, but if your organization is sending out RFIs or RFPs or is otherwise involved in system selection, accepting anything is unwise. Even speaking to vendor reps is not smart. Don’t let vendors provide free lunches or giveaways for employees attending demos. Vendors shouldn’t pay for your site visits – if you can afford their product, you can spend your organization’s own money on flights and hotels. Besides, spurned vendors aren’t nearly as chummy afterwards, I’ve found.

Otherwise, lunches are always OK, whether one-on-one or group. Stuff for the IT department is OK, like shirts, food brought in, or sports tickets. This is the IT version of the unrestricted grants that drug companies offer, where you accept small items without reciprocating and the chance of undue influence is minimal. Corporate ethics people are usually OK with this, as long as the gifts aren’t for the specific benefit of an individual.

On the other hand, it’s never OK to solicit stuff from a vendor: free software from the Microsoft rep, donations for a pet cause, money for a department party, or entry fees for a fundraiser. Vendor strong-arming is tacky.

I also don’t like the idea that vendors buy access by sponsoring conferences and giveaways for HIMSS and CHIME, but that’s apparently a hopeless cause. It looks like Halloween, except the trick-or-treaters are wearing suits or conscientiously casual golf apparel.

Spouse trips are out. So are ridiculously transparent junkets, phony advisory board conferences, honoraria, or a visit to the German countryside to see your future PACS system being assembled. It’s tempting when all your cross-town colleagues are lining up at the feed trough, but it’s still wrong, don’t you think?

Having decision-making authority means vendor reps will try to soften you up like gangsters wooing supermodels: with flattery, rapt listening, and a shower of baubles. You know what they really want. Surely your integrity is worth enough that you won’t sell it that cheaply, especially knowing that they won’t respect you in the morning.

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Mr. HIStalk’s editorials appear each Thursday morning in the subscribers-only version of Inside Healthcare Computing’s E-News Update.  To subscribe, please go to:  https://insidehealth.com/ihcwebsite/subscribe.html or call 877-690-1871.

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Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. You and Vendors Stop Groping Each Other — Pass on Swag, Keep Your Integrity..definitely not the John Hopkin$ way. The “value” of the JH name is well worth any investment you make with them. Standard request: NO charge for software, royalty on sales and of course all expenses paid for travel to reference sites.
    You must sign an agreement that you “understand” these conditions before responding to RFP’s. I did fail to mention that they dont want to take any risk, so even with all this, they don’t buy.

  2. I have been on both sides of this as a vendor and as a CIO. There is a lot of value in developing a relationship with your vendor. Much of the time this is done over a meal or on the golf course. So, there is value. As a sales guy I appreciated the time I got with the prospect and did not mind paying their way to dinner, lunch or golf. As a CIO i have been astonished at the lavish offers some vendors make. I can see the other side of this as well. Five Star hotel “retreats” and dinners at exclusive clubs all designed to impress and align you with that vendor where you actually spend very little time with the primary contacts or powers that be. Good article, it might be a little over zealous, vendor contact is a good thing…most of the time, it fosters open communication and you can develop invaluable relationships that will help your organization.

  3. Paying for attention seems to be a way of life for HIS vendors. However, I believe that there are legitimate business opportunities to play golf or buy a lunch. Can bringing donuts to a morning meeting really be harmful? I believe this is just thoughtful and shows appreciation for ones time. The real problem is where people expect you to pay. This all starts with Trade Shows and Associations. The HFMA is a classic example of where a vendor “supports” an association yet the members don’t support the vendors. CHIME is another classic example. Here is an organization that originally went from large vendor membership only to offering lower costs for smaller vendors only to decide to raise prices and eliminate the small vendors. But does it really matter? No, because it is still an elite club where vendors pay for a “boon doggle” event, where really everyone treats the vendor like a pariah. The trade publications are no different. Advertise and we will highlight you in our publication. So it should not surprise anyone that Johns Hopkins provides a 4 page value of their brand document with an RFP. Vendors get blamed for gouging customers, but the truth is we are the ones being gouged.

  4. Great article — thanks for posting it. Many of these practices are not allowed under the NEMA Code of Ethics for member companies that manufacture medical imaging equipment and radiation therapy systems, fyi. You can see NEMA’s announcement of the Code at http://www.nema.org/media/pr/20050104a.cfm, which has a link there the Code itself.

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