Should the public be shielded from medical information that can mislead it?
Many argue against direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, which is omnipresent in print and on the airwaves. Opponents of this practice argue that it promotes the use of expensive medications when patients ask their doctors if the “drug is right for them,” the tag line that appears at the end of every ad. This phrase is the drug company’s limp disclaimer that it is really the physician who will make the prescribing recommendation. Yeah, right.
Of course, DTC ads promote drug sales. Isn’t that the purpose of advertising? Antagonists of this drug pushing state that resources spent on advertising should be used instead to lower drug prices for consumers. Couldn’t the same argument be made about any product being advertised? Should General Motors cease and desist from spending marketing money and divert these funds instead for consumer rebates? Legal products have the right to advertise and market their wares.
Personally, I dislike the tsunami of drug ads that are in my face several times daily. I don’t agree that they provide useful health information, despite claims that they are public service announcements. They annoy me. Nevertheless, the pharmaceutical companies, like any business, have a right to advertise and promote their products, and I would oppose an effort to ban the practice. I think that the industry’s commercial right to free speech trumps arguments advanced to restrict this practice. The twist here in the pharmaceutical business is that the public cannot directly purchase their products, as it can with cars, breakfast cereal and house furniture.
I would support a targeted advertising ban, particularly on television, for various urologic potions that promise to bring new blood to an old pastime. I cannot count how many times over the years these ads have popped up while my kids were watching television. While the industry claims that these ads are not run during family viewing hours, this time slot definition never seems to apply to my family. I would support restrictions on these ads during appropriate hours on the basis of public policy, as the companies do have a potent free speech argument. Of course, companies could enact a voluntary moratorium, which would generate good will at the expense of brand exposure and sales. I don’t expect this as when business interests collide with family values, guess who wins?
Why should my kids and yours have to be acquainted with Viagra, Cialis and Levitra, and learn words and phrases that are not yet essential in their lexicons? Of course, the companies could counter that if I am concerned about the content of their ads, that I should disable the cable. Similarly, Howard Stern retorted to critics of his radio show that if they were offended, then they should change the station. He further stated that he wouldn’t permit his young children to listen to his show as he believed that the correct response to adult content was proper parenting, and not censorship. He has a point, but even good parents cannot hover over our kids every moment.
Of course, its not just drug companies that are pursuing DTC ads with gusto. Physicians and hospitals are hawking our goods and services with zeal and enthusiasm as we troll the countryside for patients. Here in Cleveland, these ads are a ubiquitious plague upon us. These ads can pose curious conflicts. For example, how many hospitals can fairly claim to be #1 in cardiac care?
Hospital marketing mavins don’t just push individual doctors or traditional medical specialties on us. They now lure us to ‘women’s health seminars’, ‘spine centers’, ‘digestive institutes, ‘sports medicine departments’ and ‘wellness centers’. Many conventional medical institutions are now offering alternative medical services, knowing that this is a marketing magnet for a believing public. Should the choice of a specific medical service by a health institution be a medical or a marketing decision?
I don’t like all of this advertising clutter and static, but I can’t avoid it, and we can’t change it. Medicine is now as much of a business as it is a profession. With all the changes that I fear await the medical profession, I wonder how college students will respond to the question, “is medicine the right profession for you?”
Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.
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