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Prescription drug ads are hard to avoid. Some supporters of drug ads claim they do more than sell pills, they also help educate consumers about medical conditions and their potential treatments. Yet, a recent study by researchers at the University of California at Davis and the University of California at Los Angeles finds drug ads fail to educate consumers at all.
"No English-speaking country other than the United States permits direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising," notes Richard L. Kravitz, MD, director of the University of California Davis Center for Health Services Research in Primary Care. "A leading argument in favor of allowing this advertising is that the ads are educational; however, our research shows that in practice this argument often falls short."
Researchers analyzed 320 print ads promoting 101 prescription drugs which appeared in 18 popular magazines between 1989 and 1998. On an 11-point scale of educational content, the average ad scored a low 3.2 points.
In fact, most ads, says Kravitz, failed to provide information about how a drug works, its success rate, how long it must be taken, alternative treatments, or helpful lifestyle changes. Several ads didn’t even reveal the drug’s name, he adds.
Specific study findings include:
• Only 9% of prescription drug ads report the drug’s success rate.
• Only 9% of ads clarify misconceptions about the medical conditions the drug is prescribed to treat.
• Eleven percent of ads report how long the drug must be taken.
• Twelve percent of ads state the prevalence of the condition the drug treats.
• Twenty percent report how long it takes for the drug to work.
• Less than 25% of ads describe lifestyle changes patients make to improve the condition the drug treats, either alone or in combination with the drug.
• Only 27% of ads provide information on the causes or risk factors for the condition the drug treats.
• Less than 30% of ads acknowledge the existence of competing treatments.
• 35% of ads offer consumers a method for obtaining more information about the drug or the condition it treats.
• Less than 40% of ads report how the drug works.
• Seventy-three percent of ads provide a toll-free information number.
• Ninety-five percent of ads named the medical condition the drug treats.
The ads, says Kravitz, are designed to encourage patients to request the advertised drugs from their physicians. He says this typically leads to one of the following three outcomes:
• Best outcome: The patient requests the drug and the drug is appropriate for the patient.
• Poor outcome: The patient requests an appropriate drug and the physician refuses to prescribe it — locking the patient and physician in an argument that threatens the doctor-patient relationship.
• Worse outcome: The patient requests an inappropriate drug and the physician agrees to prescribe the drug anyway — possibly causing the patient’s health to suffer.
Case managers can become the physician’s ally in this struggle by gathering educational resources produced by physician groups, such as the American Medical Association in Chicago, and specific medical condition-related groups, such as the American Heart Association in Dallas. When a patient asks questions about a specific drug, or states a desire to request the drug from his physician, Kravitz suggests that case managers provide a handout, saying, "This information is produced by the best experts in the field, and provides a more balanced view than those found in profit-motivated advertisements."