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Banning drug advertising would be bad medicine

March 31, 2016

New York Times healthcare reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal recently added her voice to a growing number of proponents calling to eliminate direct to consumer advertising by drug companies. She also proposed possibly restricting hospital advertising.

Rosenthal and others, including the American Medical Association, assume that if consumers know about newer, more expensive drugs, they might ask for them. They also assume that this is a primary driver of the rising costs of prescription drugs and devices.

Not only does this overstate the already-tenuous relationship between advertising and drug prices, it completely ignores the important benefits of patient engagement and positive healthcare outcomes.

Physicians pride themselves on their ability to evaluate diseases using scientific methods. But the call to eliminate direct to consumer advertising is unsupported by the available evidence and amounts to censorship of potentially useful information.

Advertising benefits patients by educating them about potential healthcare treatments. Engaged patients are not only more medically knowledgeable, they more often comply with treatment protocols and may enjoy better outcomes.

The AMA recently lamented the results of a Kaiser poll that supposedly proved that large numbers of people are duped by advertising. A closer look at this data, however, actually reveals healthy physician/patient engagements.

Only about thirty percent of the poll respondents had, at some point in the past, spoken to their doctors about an advertised product. According to the same poll, the most frequent physician response to patients asking for an advertised drug was to recommend behavior or lifestyle changes. Doctors also recommended an alternative prescription drug more frequently than they prescribed the advertised drug the patient asked for. Furthermore, we can’t assume that none of these patients was helped by the prescribed treatment.

Even assuming the worst – that every time a patient who asked for an advertised treatment and was given a prescription for it – calling for a ban of all consumer advertising is an excessive solution looking for a problem.

Instead of concluding, in the face of data that proves otherwise, that doctors and patients are blindly following Madison Avenue’s orders, perhaps we should conclude that advertising – the free exchange of information – has spurred conversations between patients and doctors, and motivated patients to take an active role in their healthcare treatment.

The free exchange of healthcare information is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1996 case Liquormart v. Rhode Island that “bans against truthful, nonmisleading commercial speech rarely seek to protect consumers from either deception or overreaching, they usually rest solely on the offensive assumption that the public will respond ‘irrationally’ to the truth.”

Prescription drug ads are already heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. If healthcare interest groups are concerned with inappropriate prescription practices, that should be addressed directly with doctors, not by destroying the public’s right to critical information that could improve their health.

The opponents to direct to consumer advertising need to seek a second opinion about the actual impact of advertising on patient engagement. As the Supreme Court warned decades ago, silencing speech “to keep people in the dark for what the government perceives to be their own good” is just bad medicine.



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