Pharmaceutical Drugs and Advertising

I have news alerts delivered to my email each day, and it seems like the topic of the week has been how horribly harmful those TV ads (OK, and radio and newspaper and web) are when they try to convince mere viewers (or readers or listeners) to ask for certain drugs.

Most people don’t know it, but for 20 years before I did patient advocacy and consumerism work, I worked in marketing. I know about business and purchasing behavior. I know about branding. I understand target audiences better than most. All that marketing-speak is more comfortable to me than med-speak will ever be.

So here are my thoughts on advertising pharma drugs to the general non-prescription-writing public. I’m in the very unique position of having been in both camps.

I agree that audiences are highly influenced by what they see. In particular, they are developing brand preferences for something they know very little about.

I agree that the advertising is making doctor visits more difficult in some ways because patients think they know what drug they should take, and insist doctors prescribe it — and in many cases, it may be for a diagnosis that’s never been made, and without regard to side effects or contra-indications. That’s dangerous stuff.

And I agree that there needs to be more balance between the information that is presented about the benefits with the realities of the problems that any drug might present.

All that said…. I think that, in general, the ads can do a real service to patients for at least two reasons:

First — they introduce possibilities. I wonder how many people suffered from heartburn, which could easily lead to esophageal cancer, before they knew they could take a proton pump inhibitor (no matter what color the pill!) and it would not only cool the heartburn, but perhaps protect them from a cancer, too? Or — how many people really feared the side effects of chemo, and perhaps made decisions NOT to have chemo, before they learned there were drugs that might be able to help them keep up their strength, or keep them from vomiting?

I don’t care how many other places those people could find that information — they are parked in front of their TVs and they are reading magazines — and that’s where the information is found by them. One advertising truth is that it takes a minimum of 7-9 exposures before someone really “gets” the information about a product. And that’s what pharma drug advertising is doing.

Second — they drive people to treatment. Returning to the guy who never would have seen his doctor for heartburn — knowing there is a pill that can help him may make him seek it out. Now, I don’t have any statistics on this — it’s an educated guess. But if a study was done, I’m confident the results would be just that.

I don’t think the ads should be removed or outlawed. But I do think they should be modified.

First, I think they should encourage patients to learn about the type of drug, its benefits and its possible problems. The call-to-action should be for patients to ask their doctors about possibilities — NOT a brand. Yeah, yeah, I know that flies in the face of good advertising — but I’m talking about a patient-centrism here — NOT profit. If done the right way, profits will follow.

And here’s a very NON-marketing, PRO-patient approach: include the names of the drug’s competitors in the ads! Ad ad for the purple pill (Nexium) would also have to include Prilosec, Previcid, Aciphex — and the generic version called omeprazole — and encourage patients to learn about them all. That way, when patients see their doctors, they can have an intelligent conversation about them, and together the doctor and patient can choose the right answer for the patient.

I say all this — and realize it’s never going to happen. My daughter is a drug rep! I hear her talk from time to time about her frustrations with advertising because none of the drugs she teaches doctors about are advertised on TV or in consumer print ads. Doctors tell her that their patients ask for those brands — without regard as to whether the drug is right for them or not.

Patients — do yourselves a favor and learn as much as you can about a drug before you ask a doctor to prescribe it for you! You are allowing profit for drug companies, without knowing whether your own health will profit.

That makes NO sense, does it?

Patients — if you want to learn more about using drug ads to help you, check out previous articles I’ve written at:

Posted in: Doctor Communication, Health /Medical Consumerism, Healthcare Quality, Medical and Research Studies, Medical Errors / Mistakes / Misdiagnosis, Patient Advocacy, Patient Empowerment, Patient Tools, Pharmaceutical Drugs

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  1. raymond September 26, 2007

    When they advertise drugs they should be made to show the side effects as well like with cigarette adverts (smoking can damage your health).