CONSUMER DRUG ADVERTISING: N.Y. Times Asks, ‘At What Cost’?
Today's New York Times takes a closer look at the effects of the recent explosion in direct-to-consumer drug advertising budgets on the patient-doctor relationship. Spending took off in August 1997 when the Food and Drug Administration relaxed longstanding restrictions on television ads for prescription drugs. According to the market research firm Competitive Media Reporting, "[c]onsumer advertising for prescription drugs rose to $100 million a month this year, almost five times the total only three years ago." The advertising appears to have paid off for drugmakers, since sales are up across the board, particularly treatments for readily "apparent" problems such as allergies, impotence and stomach problems. But some physicians are concerned that the proliferation of ads "artificially stoke[s] demand for the most expensive treatments and waste time for both patients and doctors." Insurers, for their part, are complaining about the soaring costs of covering enrollees' pharmaceutical demands.
Consumer: Player or Pawn?
Between January and September of this year, visits to doctors increased by 2% across the board, but allergy visits increased fully 10%, according to drug marketing research firm Scott-Levin. And a Louis Harris & Associates survey of 2,015 patients in June found nearly 30% who had taken a prescription drug "said they talked with their doctors about a drug they saw advertised ... [b]ut only 40% said the doctor had prescribed the drug they had discussed." These findings mean "half the effort caused by the advertising is probably wasting the doctor's time and wasting expense within the HMO, which drives up the cost for everybody," notes Stephen Schondelmeyer, professor of pharmaceutical management and economics at the University of Minnesota. Pharmaceutical companies like to point out that "many medicines, however costly," are less expensive than the hospital stays they prevent, and the conversations the ads prompt with doctors often lead to the discovery and treatment of conditions that may otherwise have gone untreated. A recent market survey by Time found almost 30% of respondents "would consider switching doctors if they did not get the prescription they requested." But, according to Dr. Brian Strom, chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania, "The patient is not an educated consumer. The patient is really an unwitting tool of the manufacturer's marketing department" (Freudenheim, 11/17).