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Updated: November 16, 2022
By Jordan P. Roberts, PA-C

Free CME: Pearls & Pitfalls

Free CME can be an easy way to earn category 1 CME credits; either a few or a lot. But there are some definite pros and cons to be aware of.

How to Evaluate Free CME

I’ll admit that I occasionally partake in free CME lectures or audiocasts, usually published on big sites like Medscape. As many paid CME providers will (correctly) tell you, an extra layer of diligence is never a bad idea when it comes to choosing free CME online.

While there are guidelines in place to reduce commercial bias in CME, it never hurts to “trust but verify.”

From our friends at the Psychopharmacology Institute, here are some prudent questions to ask before participating in “free” CME programs:

  • How objective is this activity on the management of behavioral symptoms of dementia? (Sponsored by Acadia Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of pimavanserin)
  • How objective is this activity on the management of insomnia (Sponsored by Merck, manufacturer of suvorexant)
  • How will this type of education impact my practice?

That’s not to say all free CME is inherently biased. But it is true that industry has an incentive to fund educational events that move their agenda forward. That means creators of free CME have an incentive to create ‘fundable’ CME activities.

Even if unconscious, this is why we like to separate industry from medical education. We all have to keep the lights on somehow, and our brains are great at convincing us we are doing the rational, morally right thing no matter the situation.

Illusory Superiority

You may have heard that “80 percent of drivers rate themselves as above average.” This seems like a statistical impossibility, given that only half should be above average. While this conclusion is flawed (the average number of legs per human is less than exactly 2 due to many individuals with one or no legs, and exceedingly few with 3 or more legs), it is an example of a real effect called illusory superiority.

If you are like me, then you think of yourself as a free thinking individual clinician, immune to big pharma’s subtle biases. But I’ve got bad news for you (and me). Your colleagues largely think the same way. In fact, we all tend to think our colleagues are more susceptible to pharmaceutical industry marketing than we are individually.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you quarter some of this illusory superiority; we are all only human after all. Pharmaceutical marketing works on us because we’re human, not because there’s something wrong with our clinical thinking. If it didn’t work, I’m sure they wouldn’t be doing it.

Of course, industry marketing and industry-sponsored CME activities are theoretically separate, but they are more like “church and state” separate if you ask me. Yes, that’s the official law of the land, but in practice, there are, well…exceptions.

Free CME: Pearls (pros)

If you know me, you know that I have nothing against the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Like it or not, we live in Capitalist America, and rather than bury our heads in the sand, I believe it’s more effective to work within the system we have.

That said, free CME activities do provide substantial benefit to medical education. And free CME isn’t going away anytime soon, as far as I can tell. Here are three of said benefits, followed by the cons and alternatives.

1. Free CME is Free

Like I said, capitalism. Who doesn’t like getting something of value without having to exchange dollars for it? Of course, this means you ‘pay’ in other ways, which is true for every ‘free’ service out there. Including this one.

2. Free CME is Also Commitment-Free

Most free CME activities are relatively short and easy to complete. Watch a few CME-accredited videos, answer some quiz questions, and walk away with 0.5 or so brand-new category 1 CME credits. You can come back and do more anytime, or never see them again, up to you. Just do it safely.

3. Free CME is Convenient

Because most free CME activities are found online, physicians can participate anytime. This makes finding and completing free CME activities relatively easy. I should also point out that this is not unique to free continuing medical education, as many independent CME providers offer online convenience, along with a host of other benefits.

Free CME: Pitfalls (cons)

If you know me, you know that I have nothing against the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Like it or not, we live in Capitalist America, and rather than bury our heads in the sand, I believe it’s more effective to work within the system we have.

That said, free CME activities do provide substantial benefit to medical education. And free CME isn’t going away anytime soon, as far as I can tell.

1. Limited Content Options

You may be able to find CME on ‘trending’ topics in the medical field, but you’d be hard pressed to find a comprehensive review of internal medicine or a 14 credit psychopharmacology master class for free.

2. Tedious Credit Logging Requirements

If you decide to earn all of your CME credits for the year for free (which is totally doable, by the way), you’ll find yourself needing to keep track of additional documentation and paperwork.

Paid CME activities like CMEinfo Insider award unlimited CME credits and automatically keep track of all of your certificates. This makes submitting them to your certifying board much easier and faster.

3. Does Not Always Build on Foundational Medical Education

This can be a problem for newer clinicians, because free CME these days tends to focus on edge cases and zebras rather than building on your foundational medical knowledge. As an alternative, we recommend Master Clinicians for anyone new to practice or new to the urgent care scene, regardless of experience level.

Free CME: Alternatives

So, let’s say the cons have turned you off free CME and you’d rather have other choices. We have plenty of options for every budget to share with you.

1. Affordable CME

Just because CME isn’t free doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. There are many CME providers offering high quality medical education at amazing prices. Most of these providers include supporting students, residents, and low-income countries with free access to medical education as part of their mission.

Some notable examples of this are StatPearls, VisualDx, MedMastery, and DosedDaily.

StatPearls offers one of the most cost efficient CME subscriptions – lifetime access for a one-time payment of $2,499 – as well as traditionally affordable options, like a one-year CME membership for just $349.

MedMastery also offers fantastic multimedia learning opportunities in dozens of specialties for an equivalent monthly rate of $479 (billed as $564 per year). Check out MedMastery CME options here.

DosedDaily offers several surgical and medical subspecialty CME options in the form of a single question each day. In my opinion, this is a great way to really compound your medical knowledge over time while staying as up to date as possible. They also provide free access to residents all over the country, which is made possible by paid memberships.

One of my favorites is VisualDx. With an effective annual subscription fee starting at just $400, it is one of the most affordable options out there. It is also one of the most advanced, as it assists with diagnosis using machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence. VisualDx awards CME for reading any of their thousands of peer-reviewed clinical monographs, performing a guided workup, or searching differential diagnoses by presentation or keyword.

Learn more about VisualDx here.

2. CME with Gift Cards

If you have a dedicated CME stipend at your institution, earning all your CME credits for free is as deadly as leaving money on the table. 

But sometimes you are limited in what you can buy with this CME money. If you need a new iPad or other type of device for medical reference, you might be sh*t out of luck if you ask your hospital administrator (once they return from their private trip to the Maldives).

That’s where CME with gift cards come in. Providers like BoardVitals, Oakstone, and MDCalc offer some of the largest incentives, up to $3,500 back, as well as rewards in more modest increments.

Once you get your gift card, you can use it to purchase whatever additional medical education or equipment you need, while also getting a high-quality CME product in your specialty.

3. CME Conferences

If you can remember a time before the world was engulfed in a pandemic, you might also remember a thing called in-person CME conferences. Well guess what? They’re back (for the most part)!

Because the pandemic forced a lot of innovation in this industry, medical professionals now have more options than ever when it comes to CME meetings. Of course, nothing can replace the interaction of in-person conferences. However, accessibility was an issue. Now, you can attend a meeting anywhere in the world without the hassle of air travel.

For a list of CME conference ideas, check here.

Free CME or Paid? Your Call

Today we discussed the pros and cons of free CME, as well as some alternative choices. While paid CME is generally considered more independent, i.e. not industry funded, free CME is almost completely reliant on industry grants to survive.

There are free CME activities that aren’t industry funded at all, and these can be good, if not somewhat limited, options. Most of these types of activities are made available as part of a larger paid CME program, though you typically don’t need to buy anything to get access to the free content.

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First Published: July 17, 2022

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