Back in November, the American Medical Association (AMA), the largest association of physicians in the U.S., voted in favor of a ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices. While the AMA’s decision has essentially no impact, as only Congress or the FDA could change the rules that currently allow this practice, the announcement is significant given the AMA’s potential influence on both public opinion and physician practice. According to AMA board chair-elect Patrice A. Harris, the great concern is that DTC advertising, “inflates demand for new and more expensive drugs, even when these drugs may not be appropriate.”

However, while the AMA is the largest physician group, less than one quarter of physicians are members, and thus this proclamation is not necessarily representative of the majority of physicians. Indeed, while there is limited research on physician attitudes toward pharmaceutical marketing and the combined results trend negative, how physicians perceive DTC advertisements is more nuanced. Since DTC advertisements are likely here to stay for a while, pharmaceutical marketers developing these campaigns should take into consideration both the things that concern physicians in terms of DTC advertisements as well as the things that physicians might appreciate.

Ask your doctor. This three-word tagline is at the end of every DTC TV advertisement and represents a double-edged sword for physicians. While physicians usually appreciate an engaged patient initiating a conversation about their health, they also don’t have time to field unnecessary questions about products that are completely irrelevant. Marketers can help physicians by making this obligatory question a bit more specific, i.e., “If you have chronic disease X, and you are not meeting clinical goal Y, ask your doctor if Drug Z can help make a difference.”

Disease state awareness. In many chronic diseases, clinical outcomes are not met because patients and physicians are unaware that improvements are possible with better treatments. In many cases, sub-optimal care is normalized, and both physician and patient expectations are diminished. While this is understandable given fair balance requirements in 30-second spots, disease state—specifically poorly achieved goals—are barely mentioned in DTC ads. Yet focusing on the fact that patients with disease X can actually achieve better goals would go a long way to improve the effectiveness and perception of DTC ads. If advertisement time and fair balance requirements truly limit disease state discussion, pharmaceutical companies should pair DTC with non-branded disease state awareness DTC ads in their marketing campaigns.

Fair balanced to death. This may be an unfixable problem, but many consumers watching a DTC ad likely come away with the notion that the marketed drug is probably very dangerous. This has led to patients becoming more reluctant to take any prescription medication for fear of side effects. Pharmaceutical sales representatives can assist in this by arming physicians with actual data related to concerns patients are likely to raise. For example, a patient may be concerned about side effect X, because it was mentioned in a TV ad, but the physician can reassure the patient that this side effect is pretty uncommon (only 3%) and basically the same as placebo.

  • Matthew Mintz, M.D.

    Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, is Associate Professor of Medicine and Director, Premier Access and Executive Services at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC. Visit his blog at www.drmintz.com.

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