We’ve all been inundated with talk about healthcare reform for the past weeks, months and years. We are all too familiar with key concepts and buzzwords like pre-existing conditions, coverage under your parent’s plan and Medicaid expansion. While Congress is off on vacation, I wonder if maybe we could work on another concept that would greatly improve quality of life across the board and would require no additional funding or regulations.
Here it is: The airwaves are inundated with advertisements for prescription medications. Can we just stop that, please? I have a couple of issues with this concept, the first being that I would love to be able to watch the evening news with my family without having to hear warnings about the potential side effects of erections lasting more than four hours or painful postmenopausal intercourse. Or what about the kind, gentle voice explaining how great this new diabetes drug is, with the happy lady walking down the street and buying flowers with a spring in her step, and then the guy’s voice coming on at the end and saying, “Serious side effects can occur, including death.” Well, isn’t that true of just about anything at some point?
Another issue with these advertisements is that, in many cases, we watch these ads on TV or hear them on the radio or see them in a magazine, and think, Hmm, maybe I’ll ask my doctor about that. I have some of these symptoms, actually. Read the fine print a little closer, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that maybe I’m really sick! Maybe I have a tumor! Maybe I only have three months to live!
Say a patient goes to the doctor and says, “I’ve been having these symptoms: I have a persistent cough. I am sometimes tired. I seem more prone to infection than usual. I think I need Keytruda.”
The doctor says that the first thing he wants to do is a chest X-ray and a blood test. He comes back and says that the X-ray is clear, and the blood test is normal. So he doesn’t think you need Keytruda but suggests you take a Zyrtec, because it seems like your cough might be allergy-related. He doesn’t want to get into a big detailed conversation with you about this — he knows you don’t need Keytruda.
“But, but, but, I’m disappointed,” the patient says, “because that ad for Keytruda was very soothing and the lady seems like she is so much happier taking Keytruda!” Finally, the doctor peers over his readers, sighs deeply and says, “Do you know what Keytruda is prescribed for?” “Persistent cough and tiredness!” the patient exclaims.
“Um, no. Keytruda is for melanoma treatment in patients who have lung cancer. You don’t have lung cancer, nor do I presume you want lung cancer. You aren’t getting Keytruda!” the doctor exclaims.
This kind of advertising has been an absolute boon to advertising agencies and the media outlets that charge mightily for the time and space the commercials and advertisements cost the pharmaceutical companies in efforts to expose the public to their products. For years, there was a very different, more exclusive relationship between pharmaceutical companies and physicians. Advertising prescription drugs was frowned upon by doctors, who had always been directly educated by the pharmaceutical companies and educational programs about available treatments for their patients. Today’s direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements are powerful promotional tools, and regardless of how frustrating or ridiculous they might seem, they are probably here to stay.
The Food and Drug Administration highly regulates these advertisements in an effort to ensure that the consumer is well-informed and aware of any potential side effects of the drug advertised. That’s why that last bit at the end of every commercial lists the zillions of things that might go wrong if you take this fabulous pill for this awful condition.
The FDA does regular surveys of physicians about their DTC impressions, and the positive benefits do seem to outweigh the negatives. Physicians report that customers who say they’ve seen an ad for a particular product seem to be better informed about their condition and potential side effects, and they do seem to be aware of alternate available treatments or medications for the condition in question. They also seem to be more engaged in taking responsibility for their own care. All of these are very good things.
The downsides are that in some cases, physicians feel pressured or obligated to prescribe the name-brand product the patient is requesting, even when the doctor may have preference for another or it may be better practice to start with an older, less powerful product. Additionally, in an effort to educate the consumer about all the risks that may be associated with the drug as required by law, patients can sometimes get confused about the overwhelming benefit of a particular medication in treatment of a serious condition as compared to the relatively low risks associated with that medication. All those risks listed at the end of the ad can end up overpowering the reason the ad caught the patient’s attention in the first place.
For now, I’d be happy if we could just see less of the couple holding hands in separate bathtubs or staring longingly at each other when their hands happen to brush each other at the family picnic while hearing about the possibility of prolonged erections while watching the news. Come to think of it, maybe watching less of the news might make me a little less grumpy about all those ads!
About the author: Kelly Warren Moore has sold clinical research and development software solutions to the pharmaceutical and biotech industry for the past several years. She previously spent 20 years in business development for the pharmaceutical research and development field, focusing on multi-study, global clinical programs. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from The University of Texas at Austin. Any opinions expressed in this article are strictly her own and are not meant to represent those of any employer, client or organization with whom she is affiliated.