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Maximize Your CME Allowance

If you have an employer-sponsored continuing medical education fund - or CME allowance - you might agree that in general, it falls short of meeting your true CME needs. Here's how to make it work better.

Updated: January 10, 2023
By Jordan P. Roberts, PA-C
CMW Allowance Policy CME rewards

How to Spend CME Money

If you have an employer-sponsored continuing medical education fund, or CME allowance, you probably spend a lot of time considering the best way to spend that CME money.

I think you'll agree that in general, your CME budget falls short of meeting your true yearly CME needs.

However, there is a solution that might work better for everyone, if enough clinicians and institutions get on board.

In this article, we’ll first lay out a long-term solution and the principal benefits for all stakeholders involved. After that, we'll show you a quick fix that you can use today to make the most of your CME allowance.

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CME Allowance: What is the Problem?

The CME allowance is a common employer fringe benefit for healthcare professionals with a major problem.

The absolute dollar amount that employers offer for your CME allowance has probably remained fairly steady over time. However, inflation, along with a host of other factors, works to chip away at the absolute value of their CME fund year over year.

Even if you get a yearly cost of living adjustment, this is partially offset by the decreasing purchase power of your CME allowance. 

Additionally, when you consider the rising costs of high-quality post-graduate medical education, your CME allowance starts to feel like one of your least financially valuable fringe benefits. But that won’t stop state boards, employers, or other institutions from requiring you to continue logging your CME hours. 

Another issue, if you want to call it that, is the ‘use-it-or-lose-it' nature of this benefit that leaves many scrambling to spend any leftover CME money they have before the end of the year. 

With the doom and gloom out of the way, how much ‘should' your CME allowance actually be? That of course, depends on who you ask. So let's examine some data.

How Much Should Your CME Allowance Be?

According to the healthcare consultancy Sullivan-Cotter, the typical CME allowance ranges from $3500 to $5000 for physicians each year.

The number is slightly lower for advanced practice clinicians as a group, despite having largely similar CME requirements.

Are there ways to make this better? Sure. But a low CME allowance means clinicians have to make some sacrifices when it comes to their continuing medical education.  

For example, some CME conferences may be over the budget of many clinicians' CME allowance. Attending a single out-of-state conference, an endeavor that is certainly worthwhile, can blow this budget clear out of the water.

And if you want to attend two destination CME meetings or bring your family? Forget it. Your spouse and kids better have their own CME fund.

One Way to Fix the CME Allowance

What can be done to improve the value of your CME allowance? You can clamor for an increase in your individual CME fund all you want, but that probably won't help in the long term. Even employers can't justify a $15,000 budget for each healthcare professional they employ at this time, likely for financial as much as regulatory reasons.

Is one solution to eliminate the CME allowance entirely? What would be the benefit in stashing it away with bloodletting, the diagnosis of ‘hysteria,' and frontal lobotomies? 

And if the CME allowance is no more, what would take its place? Would we all be on our own? Would clinicians, their professional organizations, and CME providers stand for the perceived elimination of all the country's CME money? 

What if the solution was to create an ‘unlimited’ CME allowance? 

An Unlimited CME Allowance

I know the hospital accountants will all stroke out if they hear this. Is it too predictable that a clinician (exactly the type of person who might have a limited CME allowance) would propose an unlimited CME budget?

Have we clinicians never heard of generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) or tried to run a business before?

Or are all my colleagues trying to find ways to spend all day at the beach on a vacation ‘disguised' as a CME conference?

Well, I can't speak for others regarding GAAP or their business experience.

And maybe some of us would like to spend all day on a beach on a fake conference on someone else's dime, but not at the expense of patient care.

I'm guessing you would readily agree. But I wonder if those outside of clinical practice who don't understand this sense of responsibility would be the ones who might game the system, given the opportunity.

Maybe whoever is in charge of these numbers thinks we're all crooks in white coats. Maybe it's for another reason entirely. 

More CME Money, More Problems?

If clinicians go to more conferences, aren’t hospitals just subsidizing their vacations? Medical conferences are held in fun cities at nice hotels. What if clinicians are engaged in non-tax advantaged…err…non-educational activities?

Clinicians get together with the only other people in the world with the same weird sense of humor and learn for a few days.

People with business degrees call that ‘networking.’ It's what allows them to write off the cost of $14 cocktails they have with other folks with business degrees. With the high prevalence of burnout in medicine, this engagement and connection is even more important for clinicians.

Physicians, PAs, and nurse practitioners will rarely admit they enjoy networking. But remove the usual stressful environment of the wards, and clinicians naturally begin to network with their colleagues.

How could this possibly be a bad thing?

Compliance Issues

Understandably, hospital leadership may be concerned not to contribute to fraud, waste, or abuse of healthcare dollars. 

Nevertheless, combining a CME conference and a vacation is a legitimate, recognized practice in the clinical world. Many attendees use the opportunity to take the family to a nice place, learn something new, then stay a few days over to see the sights and play tourist. 

Now ask yourself if you’d be worried about your own general practitioner exploiting this. What about your surgeon?

Let's pretend you are a hospital executive. Do you imagine these two partying, sleeping in, and skipping every lecture only to claim all the CME credit? On your dime, no less! If you answered yes, you might consider looking for a new GP and surgeon. 

Alternatively, consider re-evaluating your hiring practices. Why pay a bunch of lazy and dishonest people to make actual life-and-death decisions for your customers; their patients?

Yes, employers who offer their clinicians a CME allowance need a budget to remain operational, just like any other business. Unlike other business, however, healthcare has remained laughably behind the times. If you still carry a pager, we've made our point.

Moreover, evidence suggests that employees almost never take “unlimited” perks when they are available. With that in mind, it almost seems like it wouldn't cause a total economic collapse.

Objections addressed, here’s a look at the benefits to expect when you scrap the limited CME allowance. 

Benefits of an Unlimited CME Allowance

We are guessing we have most of the healthcare professionals in the audience on board with us at the moment. However, we're sure not everyone agrees, particularly those who pay the bills.

If you are a clinician, feel free to take these points back to your organization. They may laugh in your face, but the trend really is to listen to innovative ideas that can positively impact healthcare spending. At least it is at the good institutions. 

If you are in charge of the CME allowance of clinicians, then take note, and please don't laugh in our faces in the comments below. There truly may be a financial justification for your adopting of this model.

Here are three benefits all stakeholders should expect.

1. Better Healthcare Providers

Contrary to popular belief, most clinicians are selfless, overly hard-working, and professional. I know, I know – it looks ridiculous written out, but somebody’s gotta say it.

Nevertheless, wouldn’t you actually want the best trained, most up-to-date, and knowledgeable providers possible?

Continuing medical education allows us to be better, learn new and improved ways to practice, and of course, take better care of patients. 

What’s the economic benefit here? For a start, does ‘value-based payments’ ring a bell? 

With shifting reimbursement models, institutions that don't keep up with the times will find themselves in the storage closet next to the hand-cranked lobotomy drill. 

2. Leadership in the Healthcare Industry

The first institution to pull this one off will be a darling among healthcare providers everywhere. Happily employed clinicians (not an oxymoron) can't help but tell their colleagues elsewhere about how great they have it.

Similarly, burned out, jaded, or disenfranchised healthcare providers will be just as vocal, if not more. Which type of clinician (and public sentiment) do you want to attract?

Furthermore, with fewer restrictions on the CME allowance, clinicians will have the freedom to learn about a broader range of topics. Maybe now they can go to that important conference and pick up great digital CME products that align with your strategy (more on that below).

High-quality CME is available right here on the internet now, but there is no alternative to face-to-face learning at a conference. These meetings allow clinicians to learn directly from their peers and ultra-niche experts.

Conferences are one of the oldest types of continuing medical education around for good reason. But that doesn't mean they aren't on the cutting-edge of innovation.

3. Return on Investment

Employers should – appropriately – be wondering what they get out of this deal at this point. Aside from those happier, more productive healthcare providers, what is the bottom line? Let's look at the evidence.

Research has shown that organizations that support their clinicians have higher rates of engagement and lower turnover. And clinician turnover is crazy expensive

Engagement is key to the building of positive clinician-patient relationships. These relationships, by proxy, are a vital component of patient satisfaction. It aligns incentives for value and fosters ongoing quality improvement practices.

These are major wins for institutions, clinicians, and patients.

There is also some evidence that continuing medical education decreases overall healthcare costs.

When clinicians' practice becomes more efficient because of learning something new, early evidence suggests we can save millions of dollars. Of course, it's early research, and as with any research, more data is needed to further explore these findings.  

However, the American Hospital Association has been encouraging its members to use continuing education “to advance strategic aims of the organization” since 2013. Not only is better, more efficient patient care the reason healthcare professionals are ‘lifelong learners,' it can also save you a few $30,000 re-admissions. 

So then why are we left with this broken structure to maintain the highest standards of knowledge possible?

Some clinicians remember their weekly childhood allowance growing faster than today's typical CME allowance. My father, being an accountant, assures me that mine at least kept up with inflation. That's more than we can say for the CME allowance.

So what’s holding it back?

Get The Most of Your CME Allowance Any Time of The Year

If your CME allowance is not ‘unlimited' – yet – fear not. We've detailed how to get the most value for any CME budget.

For those seeking the most efficient way to spend your remaining CME allowance, we have you covered.

Modern MedEd has curated great online CME packages that reward you with a free gift card with your CME purchase, unearthed unconventional CME you'll love, filtered through the most convenient CME subscriptions available, and more

First Published: January 2, 2018

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