Materials From Consumer Alliance Program Can Help Patients Make Informed Decisions

January 20, 2010 04:10 pm "Voices" Staff

In today's digital world, one of the best ways to communicate accurate, evidence-based health information is to post it on a popular and trusted Web site. The AAFP has just such a Web site -- the award-winning FamilyDoctor.org(familydoctor.org), which welcomes, on average, 3.5 million unique visitors each month. Now, the Academy has a new program that's designed to expand the scope and depth of the information on FamilyDoctor.org.

[Screen capture of new FamilyDoctor.org content on healthy nutritional choices]

The new Consumer Alliance program creates partnerships between the Academy and selected consumer products companies that want to see Americans become better educated about health issues related to the company's products. Grants from the partner companies give the Academy the opportunity to address those issues on FamilyDoctor.org, while also providing critically needed revenue to support other important Academy activities on behalf of members.

The Academy does not endorse the products of its Consumer Alliance partners, and the partners have no influence over the AAFP's policy development process or the content developed for FamilyDoctor.org. The AAFP maintains complete editorial control to ensure creation of balanced, evidence-based content that can help consumers make informed decisions. The content then is extensively reviewed by family physician editors, members of the AAFP Commission on Health of the Public and Science, and credentialed expert consultants.

When posted, each patient education piece is linked to a list of resources used in the development of that piece. Family physicians can print the patient education materials for use in their practices or refer patients to the materials online.

The First Alliance: Member Concerns Acknowledged

The first materials funded by the Consumer Alliance program, which posted to FamilyDoctor.org last week, were supported by a grant from the program's first partner, The Coca-Cola Co., or TCCC. The 10 patient education handouts that were added to FamilyDoctor.org address the health consequences of added sugar in the diet, provide information about six types of sugar substitutes and discuss the importance of proper hydration -- critically important topics, because the empty calories of added sugar are a key cause of obesity, and obesity is such a problem in America today.

Last October, the Academy's announcement of TCCC as the first Consumer Alliance partner sparked an outcry from some AAFP members. What concerned most of them was TCCC's production of red-can Coke and other sugar-sweetened beverages that contribute to the epidemic of obesity. They also were worried that TCCC might influence the materials created for FamilyDoctor.org. A few suggested that the AAFP raise its member dues to eliminate the need to find more non-dues revenue. Some threatened to -- and a small number did -- resign their AAFP membership to protest the partnership with TCCC.

However, the just-published handouts should allay the fears about any TCCC influence over content on FamilyDoctor.org. TCCC had no role whatsoever in the development of that content, and the handouts don't pull any punches about sugar-sweetened beverages. Indeed, they note that "sugary drinks, including soft drinks, sports drinks and fruit drinks, are the number one source of added sugar in the American diet," and they caution that too much added sugar can contribute to many health problems, including tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. Of course, Americans still may drink red-can Coke after reading these handouts -- but it won't be because they don't know the facts.

Other Benefits of the Consumer Alliance Program

The Consumer Alliance program can help the Academy and its members in other ways, too. Currently, member dues account for 27 percent of the Academy's total revenue. Through the Consumer Alliance program, the AAFP Board of Directors hopes to tap into new sources of non-dues revenue for the Academy. That effort is driven in part by a significant drop in revenue from the Academy's traditional revenue sources, such as journal advertising and funding for the Annual Scientific Assembly. Overall, AAFP revenue from the pharmaceutical industry has declined from $34 million in fiscal year 2005-2006 to $25.5 million in 2007-2008.

This downward revenue trend required the Academy to go through a difficult and thorough assessment of all programs in 2008-09 (Members Only). The result was a 14 percent reduction in budget and elimination of more then 50 AAFP staff positions. Current information strongly warns that a large dues increase to support AAFP programs would not be well received by members.

Tapping into new revenue sources also is a response to member concerns about the Academy's reliance on pharmaceutical industry funding. Those concerns have percolated through the AAFP Congress of Delegates during the past few years, and the Board has listened. At the same time, the Board realizes that modest annual increases in dues at the national level cannot begin to offset the other revenue sources the Academy depends on to provide programs and services to members.

As a result of the Board's effort, the AAFP has placed new emphasis on pursuing government and foundation grants to fund its activities. Now, through the Consumer Alliance program, the AAFP is turning to grants from consumer product companies as well, but the Academy will always maintain a definite separation between those companies and Academy-created content and policies.

Additional Alliances on the Horizon

After careful review and much discussion, the Board of Directors has decided to continue moving forward with the Consumer Alliance program. Not only is the program consistent with the Academy's strategic objective of improving the health of the public through patient education on FamilyDoctor.org, it represents an innovative way to provide members of the public with patient education in a venue where they spend far more time than they do as patients -- as consumers.

Furthermore, the Consumer Alliance program has the potential to provide much needed funding to support other member services, and it provides another venue to develop relationships that can be powerful voices in furthering other advocacy goals of the AAFP. In the process of moving forward, however, the Board is committed to making sure that a full range of members' voices are heard when potential partnerships are evaluated. Feel free to contact AAFP News Now with your thoughts about future Consumer Alliance partnerships.