Are you at legal risk for speaking at conferences?


When Jerry Gardner, MD, and a junior colleague received the acceptance notification for their abstract to be presented at Digestive Diseases Week® (DDW) 2021, a clause in the mandatory participation agreement gave Dr. Gardner pause. It required his colleague, as the submitting author, to completely accept any and all legal responsibility for any claims that might arise out of their presentation.

Conference meeting lecture VladKol/Getty Images

The clause was a red flag to Dr. Gardner, president of Science for Organizations, a Mill Valley, Calif.–based consulting firm. The gastroenterologist and former head of the digestive diseases branch at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases – who has made hundreds of presentations and had participated in DDW for 40 years – had never encountered such a broad indemnity clause.

This news organization investigated just how risky it is to make a presentation at a conference – more than a dozen professional societies were contacted. Although DDW declined to discuss its agreement, Houston health care attorney Rachel V. Rose said that Dr. Gardner was smart to be cautious. “I would not sign that agreement. I have never seen anything that broad and all encompassing,” she said.

The DDW requirement “means that participants must put themselves at great potential financial risk in order to present their work,” Dr. Gardner said. He added that he and his colleague would not have submitted an abstract had they known about the indemnification clause up front.

Dr. Gardner advised his colleague not to sign the DDW agreement. She did not, and both missed the meeting.

Speakers ‘have to be careful’

Dr. Gardner may be an exception. How many doctors are willing to forgo a presentation because of a concern about something in an agreement?

John Mandrola, MD, said he operates under the assumption that if he does not sign the agreement, then he won’t be able to give his presentation. He admits that he generally just signs them and is careful with his presentations. “I’ve never really paid much attention to them,” said Dr. Mandrola, a cardiac electrophysiologist in Louisville, Ky., and chief cardiology correspondent for Medscape.

Not everyone takes that approach. “I do think that people read them, but they also take them with a grain of salt,” said E. Magnus Ohman, MBBS, professor of medicine at Duke University, Durham, N.C. He said he’s pragmatic and regards the agreements as a necessary evil in a litigious nation. Speakers “have to be careful, obviously,” Dr. Ohman said in an interview.

Some argue that the requirements are not only fair but also understandable. David Johnson, MD, a former president of the American College of Gastroenterology, said he has never had questions about agreements for meetings he has been involved with. “To me, this is not anything other than standard operating procedure,” he said.

Presenters participate by invitation, noted Dr. Johnson, a professor of medicine and chief of gastroenterology at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, who is a contributor to this news organization. “If they stand up and do something egregious, I would concur that the society should not be liable,” he said.


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