Kudos to the American Medical Association for pushing back against “big pharma” and advocating for their patients! Today’s headlines announce a new AMA policy that blames “direct-to-consumer” prescription drug advertising for skyrocketing drug costs and inappropriate treatment. This is more than good PR for the AMA, it is a warning to the pharmaceutical industry:

“Delegates at the influential group’s policy-making meeting in Atlanta voted to adopt that as official policy as part of an AMA effort to make prescription drugs more affordable. It means AMA will lobby for a ban.” –CBS News 

dtccartoonWhat is so harmful about DTC advertising? It takes the doctors out of the loop. We have all heard (and memerized) the catchphrase: “…talk to your doctor today, to see if this new prescription drug might be right for you.” The everyday consumer is led to believe they may have a medical condition requiring this new, expensive prescription drug – and may seek unnecessary testing and treatments, even switching doctors several times until they find one who will write the prescription. Alternatively, a consumer may demand the brand name rather than a generic based solely on the powerful influence of pharmaceutical marketing.

Don’t get me wrong: I am 110% for patient advocacy, for transparency from the entire healthcare system, and for health literacy. With their new task force, the AMA is fighting for access, because advertising drives up the cost of prescription drugs; and fair play, because demand for brand names ultimately monopolizes YOUR health care.

What it really comes down to is fear: do you have such-and-such symptoms? (leading questions) do you think your doctor doesn’t have your best interest at heart? (underlying suggestion) you may be at risk for such-and-such terrible disease if you DON’T take this new drug! (blatant provocation) and…don’t forget the long, long, looonnngg list of potential side-effects. (because, after all, we are being completely honest here…)

If you think consumers are being empowered by having a “choice” regarding the many, various options for their chemo-therapy, the real effect is just the opposite:

This type of advertising is big business. Ad spending by drug makers increased 30 percent from 2012 to 2014, reaching $4.5 billion, according to market research firm Kantar Media.” – U.S. News & World Health Report

Who regulates DTC prescription drug advertising? You guessed it – the FDA. Here’s what they claim:

“The United States is one of the few places in the world that allows DTC advertising. (New Zealand is the only other developed nation that does.)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees prescription drug advertising with the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and related regulations.

Through its Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC), FDA ensures that all prescription drug promotion provided by drug firms is truthful, balanced, and accurately communicated.”

While it sounds well and good that all advertising should be “truthful, balanced, and accurately communicated” the subtle psychological effects are not balanced at all. We are bombarded with the message that we are sick, and that this-or-that pill is the only cure.

Devil’s Advocate

photo credit Jeffrey MacMillan for US & World Health News
photo credit Jeffrey MacMillan for US & World Health News

On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies hold fast and strong to a very persuasive justification for DTC advertising:

“The justification for direct-to-consumer advertising has been focused on patient education.  The stated goal has been to provide patients with information about new medicines and treatments for diseases that were previously untreatable.  Furthermore, it is believed that advertising encourages patients to open a dialogue with their doctors about medical conditions and illnesses – communication that might not have previously existed.” – Maybe it’s time for drug companies to drop TV ads, Forbes Magazine

Perhaps this is why we decided to give it a try – but not without serious reservations:

“Underlying this policy debate are profound disagreements over the role of consumers in medical decision making, the appropriateness of consumers engaging in self-diagnosis, and the ethics of an industry promoting potentially dangerous drugs.” – A History of Drug Advertising, National Institute of Health

The AMA is making a definitive statement about the doctor-patient relationship, and how they view “the role of consumers in medical decision making”. As consumers, we need to be asking what our role is in the big picture, and how we can advocate for our needs, how can we contribute to better health care overall?

Finally, and most persuasively, we have this comment from a retired pharmaceutical executive, posted on the AMA website:

The worst thing I ever saw in my adult lifetime of involvement in manufacturing and supplying a panoply of prescription drugs to the global marketplace was DTC (Direct To Consumer) advertising. We all knew immediately that drug advertising in public media would result in huge numbers of prescriptions written that were simply wrong. Why? Because the physician no longer controlled the drug to be prescribed. The patient did. It just doesn’t get any dumber than that. It’s like handing a loaded gun to a child.

My take, as a holistic practitioner who does see clients though I do NOT claim to diagnose, treat or prevent any disease as such, is that pharmaceutical advertising muddles the picture. All advertising sets us up to develop skewed pictures of ourselves, who we really are, and our potential as happy and healthy individuals.

brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood homeopath
brought to you by your friendly, neighborhood homeopath

The more aggressive drug advertising becomes, however, the more I see clients who ask me, “do you think I might have this condition?” “should I try this new drug?” “do you have an herbal alternative to this prescription medication?” – my answer, from the bottom of my heart, every time, isn’t to re-watch that commercial – rather, go ask your doctor.

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