Consumer Drug Ads May Confuse the Public

The drug ads are working to influence the public's choice of medications.

A new study shows that patients are often influenced by advertisements for medications that they see on TV and in magazines -- often to the point that they question their doctor's wisdom.

Some may demand other drug choices; others ask if they were misdiagnosed altogether.

The bottom line, says researcher Philip Burke, MD, of the University of Massachusetts at Worcester, is that advertisements aimed at consumers have an impact on patient attitudes.

But while some consumer groups charge that direct-to-consumer, or DTC, advertisements for prescription drugs negatively affect the doctor/patient relationship, Burke isn't prepared to go that far.

Consumer Beware

What the researchers did find is that direct-to-consumer advertising affects the attitudes of patients toward their psychiatric medications and affects the interactions between patients and prescribers, researchers say.

"The important thing is to be aware that they are ads and that they are trying to influence your behavior," Burke tells WebMD. Have an open, honest discussion with your doctor if you have any concerns, says Burke.

But Richard Gordon, MD, professor of psychology at Bard College in Anndale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is a bit more wary.

The new study, presented here at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, included 89 psychiatric patients.

The ads, he says, often oversimplify a psychiatric problem. "Picking the right medication is a complicated medical decision," Gordon tells WebMD.

Since 1997, when the FDA loosened its restrictions on DTC ads, drug companies began heavily advertising prescription drugs to the general public. Consequently, the $791 million the drug industry spent on DTC ads in 1996 skyrocketed to $3.2 billion in 2003.

The study participants filled out a 17-item questionnaire that asked about their exposure to drug ads and how they felt about it.

Among the findings:

Nearly 60 percent said they'd seen ads that mentioned the drugs they were taking.
About 23 percent said the ads made them wonder if they had a different condition.
More than 50 percent wondered whether another medication might be better to treat their condition.

Two-thirds of the participants discussed their concerns with their doctor, Burke says. About half of these people were put on a new drug and about one-third of these new medications were the ones mentioned in the advertisements.

Women and people under 40 were more likely to wonder if a different medication might be better to treat their condition than men or older people, he adds.

By Charlene Laino, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: American Psychiatric Association 2005 Annual Meeting, Atlanta, May 21-26, 2005. Philip Burke, MD, of the University of Massachusetts at Worcester, Mass. Richard Gordon, MD, professor of psychology, Bard College, Anndale-on-Hudson, N.Y.