Opinion: The AMA is wrong about banning drug ads
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In a controversial move, the American Medical Association recently called for a ban on advertising prescription drugs and medical devices directly to consumers. The effort is largely symbolic because any ban would have to be authorized by Congress. But doctors resent the increasing pressure the ads place on them to write prescriptions out of concern patients will switch physicians. And they argue that many ads aimed at consumers promote more expensive medicines. Richard Meyer, a former Eli Lilly marketing executive, who is now an industry consultant who runs the World of DTC Marketing blog, explains why he believes the AMA is misguided.

By Richard Meyer, pharmaceutical consultant

Last month, members of the American Medical Association declared that drug makers should stop advertising their products directly to consumers because they feel it contributes to an increase in health care costs and pushes patients to ask for products that either they may not need or is not right for them.  This approach is, at best, misguided, and, at worst, ignores the benefits of direct-to-consumer advertising for patients.

According to a study on DTC marketing that was conducted by Eli Lilly, 25 percent of patients who were prompted to visit their doctor after seeing an ad were given a new diagnosis. Of those patients, 43 percent were a “high priority” diagnosis for a serious health condition, like diabetes or hypertension. That same study indicated that 53 percent of physicians felt that DTC ads lead to better discussions with patients because patients are better educated and informed.

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In addition, a 2004 Food and Drug Administration survey of physicians and patients found that exposure to DTC ads spurred 27 percent of Americans to make an appointment with their doctor to talk about a condition they had not previously discussed. Another study found that the small print in a drug ad was strongly associated with patients contacting their health care providers.

But there is more.

A November 2006 report from the General Accountability Office noted that only 2 percent to 7 percent of patients who requested a drug in response to a drug ad ultimately received a prescription for the medicine. In another study, DTC ads increased the likelihood that a patient would initiate a dialogue with a physician to request an advertised drug.

In still another study, which was conducted in 2010 by Prevention magazine, 79 percent of those queried said they sought a specific product. At that point, the magazine had tracked such data for 13 years and the figure was an all-time high. Yet, only 19 percent of the patients actually received the product they sought, an all-time low.

DTC advertising increases awareness of health problems and leads to a better informed and educated patient who can engage their physician in a dialogue rather than a monologue.

So what’s really going on here?

First, insurers are taking more prescription writing power away from doctors.  They first want patients to try generic medications which now make up 88 percent of all available prescription drugs. Second, higher patient copayments for office visits and insurance mean consumers are “shopping” for health care and health care treatments.

This makes doctors very uncomfortable. Even with all these changes, research continually validates the notion that patients view their doctors as the gatekeepers to their prescription medicines. If a doctor doesn’t feel it’s right for the patient, then they won’t write for it.

The AMA would be better served to remind doctors to have the so-called “weight” conversation with patients, since obesity is at epidemic levels here in the United States and is costing health care billions of dollars. Patients should be warned of potential problems, if any, and, in conjunction with insurers, a comprehensive wellness plan should be developed.

DTC advertising leads patients to their health care providers and, depending on the health condition, does not lead to high-priced unnecessary scripts. The AMA should reach out and work with pharma to improve DTC marketing, not request a ban on all DTC ads.

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