There was a time when drug reps fed us lunch and gave us an endless supply of pens, pads, and even umbrellas all emblazoned with their newest drugs. They explained why their drug was better than their competitors’ and what it would offer to our patients. I still have my Zantac umbrella in the trunk of my car for rain emergencies.
Although it was somewhat annoying, it did keep us somewhat aware of newer forms of therapy. Then we discovered that sales rep exposure really did influence which drugs we prescribed, and many hospitals and doctors curtailed their visits or eliminated them entirely. Obviously, Big Pharma needed to find another way to keep us “educated.” Their new approach, admittedly clever, is the subject of my essay.
After a day at the office or in the OR, TV time to relax and unwind used to be a welcomed change from thinking about our patients and their problems.
Now that is no longer possible.
We are assaulted nightly by a veritable barrage of drug company ads aimed at the public. They depict powerful new drugs as the perfect solutions for diseases as diverse as psoriasis and colitis. Carefree, happy people cavort across the screen, now cleared of their diseases and their effects on their social lives.
Meanwhile, a dignified male voice reads them the PDR about side effects and the possibility of death, then brightly tells them to “ask your doctor.” They are even primed to tell their doctors if they have liver or kidney disease, and are warned not to take a drug if the MEA 1. It’s gibberish to those without a medical background, but pharma is protecting themselves from lawsuits. Lastly, patients are told that if they break out in a rash or their tongue swells, to seek medical attention. I’m so happy that Big Pharma thinks we are good for something. We can bailout patients in trouble.
At the least, these ads are annoying to us. They are presented as infomercials or public service announcements, purportedly helping those afflicted to lead happier and better lives. How noble. The reality is that, no longer able to see us, Big Pharma is using the general public to convey their messages to us.
It gets worse. “Ask your doctor.” Our patients have unwittingly been assigned the task of “educating” us about new drugs. But it’s even more insidious than that. The hidden message is, your doctor may not know about these drugs or what to ask you before prescribing them, so it’s your job to tell them. Making patients doubt that their physicians know enough to be competent destroys the doctor-patient relationship, making it adversarial rather than cooperative. It’s just another step toward making patients distrust us. Another way to move us from physician to health care provider.
We need to educate the public about what is being done to them and why. They need to be made aware that they are being used by Big Pharma, and how unscrupulous it is. We need the same TV presence, explaining it to them, but it may already be too late. Unfortunately, the seeds of distrust have already been subconsciously sown.
Judy Salz is an internal medicine physician and author of Worthy.
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