AMA Too Timid on Drug Advertising

Published June 23, 2005

On June 23, the American Medical Association voted at its annual meeting to defer action on the issue of direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs until after a study is conducted of the effects of such ads on the patient-physician relationship and health care costs.

“Research clearly indicates that direct-to-consumer advertising increases the demand for specific medication,” said AMA Trustee Cyril M. Hetsko, M.D. “We will study the overall effect of this advertising on patient care and consider strategies that could minimize its potential negative impact.”

It seems to me, a practicing physician, that the AMA is being too timid in its approach to this issue. Direct-to-consumer advertising offers clear benefits to patients and physicians alike.

The purpose of advertising is twofold: It informs and it persuades.

Regarding pharmaceuticals, advertising informs the public regarding drugs that could be of potential benefit to them. And then it attempts to persuade them to “see their doctor” to determine if the drug is indicated for them.

Just as billions of dollars are spent each year on research in order for companies to develop such drugs, billions more are spent each year so that patients become aware such drugs exist. If that information does not get out to the public, patients will not benefit from the drug.

There is a false belief that advertising raises the cost of drugs. But if advertising costs more than the revenues it generates through increased sales, why do so many companies spend so much on advertising? Would the cost of beer be less if it was not advertised at the Super Bowl each year?

Consider the alternative: If advertising were not available, physicians and their staffs would have to review all of their patient charts each time a new drug became available, and then call or write to those who might benefit from the new drug. The time and cost of doing this every time a new drug was released would be prohibitive.

Advertising is a very efficient and ultimately cheaper way for this information to be disseminated to patients. It allows patients to self-select and come to the office to determine if the drug will be of benefit to them.

If advertising causes potentially unsafe drugs to get into the hands of people who don’t need them, that is a physician issue and not a patient issue … and certainly not an advertising issue. It is the physician who puts pen to paper and writes the script. Not the patient, and not the pharmaceutical company.

It is thought that a moratorium for up to a year on advertising of new drugs would allow physicians to develop a “comfort level” with those drugs prior to the patients asking for them. But what about the “lack of comfort” those patients would experience–patients who during that year could have benefitted from taking the drug, but did not benefit because they did not know it existed?

Do we sometimes forget who the drugs are made for?

Richard Dolinar, M.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute and a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry.