Many Drug Ads Fail to Properly Inform Patients
> 1/31/2007 11:01:17 AM

Every American has seen his or her share of commercials prompting the viewer to "ask your doctor about..." a new and presumably improved medication. Pharmaceutical ads, once heavily regulated by law, have become an unavoidable presence in the world of prime-time television, billboards and magazines, and internet campaigns. Though the web is quickly changing the advertising world, TV ads have been proven to be the most commonly viewed and most effective, and the average American will cumulatively watch as many as sixteen hours of drug ads this year, but pharmaceutical TV spots have yet to undergo clinical scrutiny. New research suggests that these ads effect the way consumers view not only the drugs in question but drugs in general and, arguably, alter the very nature of the relationship between the patient and the general practitioner.

A study published in the journal Annals of Family Medicine observes a swath of these commercials, gaguing the substance of their content and the messages they convey to viewers. While the majority of ads studied list important facts about the medications, some including lengthy lists of potential side-effects, very few describe the causes of the conditions they were designed to treat or mention lifestyle changes as a component of or alternative to treatment with the medication in question. Most portray fictional patients reveling in the positive emotional effects and quality-of-life improvements offered by the drugs without specifying the chemical role they play in facilitating these changes or adding that exercise, improved diet and avoidance of sedentary lifestyles can also play a huge part in all areas of health.

Until 1997, drug ads were allowed to name the medication or the condition it addressed, but not both. Those strange restrictions have since been loosened considerably; the United States and New Zealand are now the only industrialized countries that allow pharmaceuticals to be marketed directly to consumers. As a result, more Americans are approaching their doctors to ask about a medicine they've seen advertised on television or submit the story of "a friend who" found some degree of success on a given medication. This trend has potential benefits for both consumers and the industry that serves them, raising public awareness of important drugs and getting them to a greater percentage of the individuals who need them while expanding the customer base of the manufacturing companies operating at the top of this chain.

A large part of the argument against these ads alleges that they simply aim to gain more customers by creating a perceived need for the drugs that has no basis in medical fact. Convincing a patient that the he or she take an unneccesarry medication is a clear violation of the doctor-patient relationship, but how often does that actually occur, and to what degree do these ads contribute to the issue? The conclusions of the researchers involved suggest an urgent need for stricter regulation, stating that, on the whole, these ads:

...provide limited information about the causes of a disease or who may be at risk; they show characters that have lost control over their social, emotional, or physical lives without the medication; and they minimize the value of health promotion through lifestyle changes. The ads have limited educational value and may oversell the benefits of drugs in ways that might conflict with promoting population health.

While the potential for abuse of these ad privledges may necessitate tighter regulatory reform, the ads are necessary and have the potential to better inform consumers about the options available to them. While patients should obviously trust their doctors more than the colorful commercials they see on television each night, the omnipotence of these spots leads many who would otherwise hesitate to consider treatment to visit their doctors about problem conditions. For those suffering from any number of diseases who have not been properly informed about treatments, this is crucial. But the ads should be required to offer all relevant info in the space provided, allowing patients to better weigh the benefits and setbacks of the medicines on the screen.

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