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Direct to Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs - for health or profit?

Dorothy - 08/12/06

Direct to Consumer Advertising (D.T.C.A.) of prescription drugs is permitted only in New Zealand and the United States. Are these advertisements placed there for health or for profit?

This advertising has fittingly been described as “the medicalisation of the well population”. Repeated messages about the dangers of certain health problems and promises of the wondrous improvements ensured by using the advertised products can have the effect of making viewers magnify small symptoms into serious conditions and go to their doctor requesting – or even demanding – a prescription for the product of their choice.

Training a general practitioner takes some twelve years and training does not cease then. When a new product is launched they have the opportunity to hear it evaluated by an overseas expert. However‚ many patients seem to feel that the advertiser who has money to make out of promoting a product is better able to diagnose their condition than the experienced doctor.

Advertising also tends to be for newer medicines rather than older ‘tried and true’ medicines as it is the newer medicines that are still ‘on patent’ and therefore generate maximum profit. Those who have followed the publicity about some pharmaceuticals should surely feel cautious about taking more medications than they need or switching to newer over older medications on prompting from an ad. Merck’s arthritis drug Vioxx was removed from the market in 2004 after it was found to increase the risk of heart problems. Merck now faces at least 11‚500 lawsuits from patients who used Vioxx and say it caused their heart attacks or strokes. The irony was that the promotion in the ads was largely around the concept of improved (gastrointestinal) safety.

Annette King‚ the then Minister of Health‚ said that she needed to be certain that it was what doctors wanted before recommending a ban on Direct to Consumer Advertising of prescription drugs.

3200 GPs were surveyed on the impact of this advertising. 50% responded. 68% of those who responded felt that consultations generated by D.T.C.A. were often unnecessary.
Of those who responded:

79 per cent said that patients frequently asked for advertised drugs
69 per cent felt they had been under pressure to prescribe advertised drugs
44 per cent said they had switched to or started a drug that they felt offered little benefit over drugs they would normally use
57 per cent felt the consultations generated by DTCA resulted in little health gain to consumers
50 per cent said DTCA could lead to difficulties in the doctor-patient relationship.
74 per cent felt that DTCA encouraged medicalisation of well populations. (Department of General Practice‚ University of Otago‚ 2002).

A matching survey of consumers found that GPs‚ pharmacists and hospital doctors were the most trusted sources of information about medicines‚ and that there was a high degree of mistrust of the motives of pharmaceutical companies and their information.

Information given in advertising can be incomplete. There has been extensive advertising in many forms of Cialis as an impotence drug which gave users thirty six hours to “Choose the Moment”. Nowhere did it state the high cost of the tablets – around $90.00 for four tablets.

Many of the people at whom these advertisements are directed are in the older age group and are old enough to remember the television programme‚ “Sale of the Century”‚ in which presenter Steve Parr had as his assistant Judith Kirk‚ now Jude Dobson. When I see her heading one of the DTC prescription drug advertisements I wonder‚ “Are we watching health experts or yet another ‘Sale of the Century’ “?

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