Are They Doing More Harm than Good?May 14, 2019
Remember the last time you turned on your television to watch a football game or catch up on the latest episode of American Idol? You saw ads for beer, the latest iPad, and all kinds of prescription drugs aiming to cure everything from psoriasis to cancer. It is almost unimaginable that the same technique that’s used to sell beer is being used to sell life-saving medications. What you tend to forget while watching these ads, is that they are just that—advertisements created to promote Big Pharma products, an industry valued at $435 billion in 2019, according to Frost & Sullivan research. This type of promotion of prescription medication through mass media is known as direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA).
What unleashed DTCA for prescription drugs in the U.S.? How have life-altering discussions that should only be happening in a doctor’s office moved their way into peoples’ living rooms?
The Prescription Drug DTCA Industry Landscape
DTCA for pharmaceuticals was legalized in 1997. Despite its relatively short 22-year existence, it has heavily impacted the advertising landscape for U.S. healthcare and stands in stark contrast to forms of legal advertising for drugs in other countries around the world. In the face of controversy and questions surrounding the ethics of DTCA, the U.S. and New Zealand remain the only two countries in the world that allow this practice. The U.S. may remain the only one if the draft of the Therapeutic Products Bill in New Zealand manages to include a ban on prescription drug advertising.
While DTCA has some positive effects, these commercials tend to mislead patients and can result in the breakdown of the doctor-patient relationship. Between 1983 to 2013, a span of 30 years, 449 articles about DTC prescription drug ads were published. These articles dissected the various pros and cons of the practice. The pros were primarily based on the belief that when patients saw ads for drugs that aligned with their symptoms, they would start a dialogue with their physician and take a more active role in their healthcare journey. Despite this well-intended strategy, DTCA of prescription drugs has shown the potential to jeopardize the doctor-patient relationship. According to an FDA survey, 65% of physicians said that DTCA for drugs sent confusing messages to the patients, and 8% claimed that they felt pressured to prescribe brand-name drugs after patients cited a DTC drug ad.
The routine use of DTCA and its adverse effects resulted in the AMA taking a stand against this type of advertising. The AMA was concerned that “a growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives.” The AMA’s stance is representative of the growing skepticism surrounding DTCA in the medical community. If the largest association of physicians in the country is voicing its concerns about…