Selling Drugs is Good Business

By Michael Dorausch, D.C.

On September 10, 2002, researchers from the National Institute for Health Care Management Research and Educational Foundation (The NIHCM Foundation) provided a report to the Federal Trade Commission at a health care workshop. The topic was Direct to Consumer (DTC) advertising of drugs: is it helping or hurting?

I came across a news piece recently titled, “Are Drug Ads Helping or Hurting?” and was not surprised by the spin the media had taken on this same topic.

There is no question, the use of prescription drugs is way up and costs are continuing to rise. There has been extensive research during the past 3 years on the effect DTC advertising is having on this increased use and spending. But is it good for us?

The Numbers
In 2001, drug companies spent $2.8 billion on DTC ads. They also spent $4.7 billion on doctor detailing (a person to person marketing interaction designed to get MDs to sell specific drugs). Drug companies spent $2 billion on seminars and events aimed at educating physicians about their drugs and doctors gave an estimated $10 billion worth of free drug samples to consumers.

As Seen on TV
According to several surveys, DTC marketing to consumers has been super successful in selling more drugs. In one survey, half of those that made a request to their doctor for a specific drug received it. In another study, more than seventy percent got the drug they asked for.

Analysis of sales data found that in 2000 doctors wrote 25% more prescriptions for the 50 most advertised drugs compared to about 4% more prescriptions for all other drugs combined. Increases in the sales of those 50 drugs most advertised accounted for almost half of the overall $20 billion + rise in spending on drugs in the retail sector from 1999 to 2000.

Who Pays the Tab?
In 1990, insurance paid 25% of the total national tab for prescription drugs. In 2000, insurers and health plans paid 44% of the bill, a 19% increase. In the mid to late 1990’s, there was also a rapid increase in managed care coverage of drugs (usually with low co-pays). Basically, a TV or similar media ad suggests you need a particular drug and the drug pushers already know many in their market have little or no out of pocket expense for it.

Public Service?
The pharmaceutical industry boasts that DTC advertising serves an educational function as well as a marketing function (see the ABC NEWS spin link below). If this is true, where are the ads for non-blockbuster money making drugs? Very simply, the selling of drugs is economically driven, and not based on educating and empowering patients. Personally, I think a better public service would be to continue to run the ads and just list the side effects. You know the ones… diarrhea, abnormal bleeding, abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, death, etc… heh, but there’s temporary headache relief.

Drug companies say that more people going to doctors for more drugs leads to better health since more are now getting treatment. One may be asking how many of those visits are appropriate and necessary? According to the reports, it is quite feasible that DTC advertisements for some drugs could generate a fairly large volume of inappropriate demand. Viagra would be a good example. Are there really that many men that cannot get it up? Also, drugs to treat depression, anxiety, pain or obesity may induce the public to seek a drug inappropriately.

There are two concerns here. 1) the cost of all of these unnecessary prescriptions and 2) patients getting drugs they do not need. The medical profession certainly does not have a good track record when it comes to the over prescribing of drugs such as antibiotics, which have cost us all in both our wallets and resistance to newly occurring strains of bacteria. Maybe it won’t be long before they release super-strength Viagra for those that have devolved a Viagra-resistant limp (not in the hip).

The report presented before the Federal Trade Commission Health Care Workshop ended with the following… “We would also advise that research be directed at learning to what degree DTC ads foster a belief that prescription drugs are safer or more effective because they are advertised in mass media.” Safe like cigarettes, heh, it’s on TV.

As is typical, media reports on DTC advertising skipped over much of the above information and just focused on the so called “educational benefits” of selling more drugs to more consumers.

Check out the following two links.
This is a PDF File Link…
FTC.GOV: “DTC Advertising: Is It Helping or Hurting?” – Statement before the Federal Trade Commission Health Care Workshop
ABC Are Drug Ads Helping or Hurting? – Direct-to-Consumer Ads Lead to New Diagnoses @ 7:13 pm | Article ID: 1051496005