Celebrities at Conferences: A Welcome Distraction?

Tricia Ward


November 09, 2017

A Special Evening With Tom Hanks was a featured event at the recent Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics (TCT) meeting in Denver, Colorado. In a premeeting press briefing, TCT co-chair Gregg Stone, MD (Columbia University) said that the night was a chance to "put away the hardcore science and introduce a little diversion."

Cardiology meetings have long featured celebrities and politicians as patient-physician pairings, such as comedian Dana Carvey and P.K. Shah, MD (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center) at the 2015 American College of Cardiology conference, or Vice President Dick Cheney and his cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, MD, who appeared at the 2014 American Heart Association meeting.

But booking high-profile, highly paid guests to entertain attendees is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Irma Damhuis, director of external relations for the Cardiovascular Research Foundation (CRF), which organizes TCT, would not disclose how much Hanks was paid and said the costs were covered by sponsors Abbott, Boston Scientific, Edwards Lifesciences, and Medtronic. A listing for the actor on Celebrity Speakers Bureau shows a minimum fee of $100,000.

When TCT organizers solicited questions for Hanks via social media, electrophysiologist Edward (Jay) Schloss joked that they should ask him how long to keep a temporary pacemaker in place in patients undergoing transcatheter aortic valve replacement with new left bundle branch block.

Tom Hanks and Martin B. Leon, MD, at TCT 2017.

During the TCT event, Hanks, who has made public his diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, revealed that he had undergone coronary stenting. Michael S. Lee, MD (UCLA Medical Center), the cardiologist who placed the stent in Hanks's left anterior descending artery, was among the panel of five cardiologist interviewers who shared the stage with the Academy Award–winning actor.

Damhuis said that Hanks's having had a stent placed played no part in his selection, explaining that these events are different from keynote addresses, and that the goal is to provide entertainment so that meeting attendees can kick back and relax after a long day in sessions.

Popes and Politicians

With relaxation in mind, TCT organizers prefer to stay away from politics, said Damhuis; when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a keynote speaker in 2014, she was not yet a presidential candidate.

Washington, DC–based interventional cardiology meeting CRTonline has a habit of lining up former US Presidents as keynote speakers. In 2012, Bill Clinton discussed his personal heart history and adoption of a plant-based diet. George W. Bush spoke in 2014, and Barack Obama is booked for 2018. At press time, CRTonline had not responded to email requests about speakers' fees for these events. According to the New York Times, Obama received $400,000 to speak at a healthcare conference run by Cantor Fitzgerald; per Politico, Bush is a cheaper booking at $100,000 to $175,000.

Europeans got in on the act with the ultimate local celebrity, Pope Francis, making an appearance at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) congress when it was held in Rome. The pontiff spoke briefly to assure attendees that "the Magisterium of the Church has always affirmed the importance of scientific research for human life and health," and then rolled by on what looked like an open-top golf cart as the admiring delegates snapped photos.

Pope Francis at the ESC Congress in 2016.

His Holiness was not paid. Jacques-Olivier Costa, of the ESC communications department, said via email that they never pay guests; they invited Pope Francis after learning that he had a particular interest in medicine and in the efforts of cardiologists to ease suffering. The society, which is based in France, gifted the Pope a stethoscope to coincide with the 200th anniversary of its invention by French doctor René Laennec.

Special guest Arnold Schwarzenegger told TCT attendees in 2015 that he agreed to appear at the meeting just after undergoing left atrial appendage closure with the Watchman device, performed by Saibal Kar, MD (Cedars Sinai Medical Center). His appearance was sponsored by Boston Scientific, the manufacturers of Watchman.

Other specialties have also embraced famous faces. Country singer Clay Walker gave a concert at the 2005 National MS Society's annual conference, sponsored by Teva Neuroscience, Inc. Walker, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996, founded the nonprofit Band Against MS and regularly performs at MS events. Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting to promote the cancer moonshot initiative.

Could the lure of celebrity be a strategy for live meetings to stay relevant in the digital age? "Celebrity appearances are not part of our typical planning for the ESC Congress," wrote Costa. "Our focus is always on the latest and most important science that will improve patient care." The ESC congress is one of the largest cardiovascular meetings in the world, drawing more than 31,000 healthcare professionals from 150-plus countries. Generally, however, live attendance at US medical meetings has declined or plateaued, and Europe may follow suit in 2018 when MedTech Europe will fully enact new ethics rules, banning direct industry sponsorship of individuals attending conferences.

The celebrity sessions at TCT were packed, with people lining up an hour in advance for Hanks; however, CRF's Damhuis doesn't believe that these events result in a single extra meeting attendee.

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