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Some 2 million Americans take blood thinners.  Nearly 30 million have diabetes. Tens of thousands more treat heartburn or cancer with medication prescribed by their doctor.  Chances are, these patients’ attention piques when they hear the medicine they take followed by “medical alert” or “warning” blaring from their television.  Many, including senior citizens, might even abandon their prescribed medicines out of fear.

It’s often hard for viewers to tell if these ads are commercials or government service announcements.  In fact, the confusion is so pronounced that Congress held hearings on the issue last year. Now, a new white paper from the Partnership to Protect Patient Health argues that the ads “perpetuate misinformation about medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration,” often to consumers’ detriment.  

The Health Consequences of ‘Bad Drug’ Ads” explains that drug-injury advertisements intend to scare viewers into calling a toll-free number so an operator can collect their health information.  Lawyers run these “bad drug” ads. So do aggregators, who bundle information from thousands of calls and sell it – to lawyers. Both groups’ objective is to profit from suing drug manufacturers.

They don’t have consumers’ best interest in mind.  They are eroding the doctor-patient relationship while driving up heath care costs for everyone because of litigation.  And when the ads cause patients to abandon their prescriptions out of fear, they can have life-threatening, even fatal, consequences.

Nevertheless, lawyers and aggregators spent approximately $149 million on advertising in 2016 – much of it only loosely regulated.   As the paper details, there’s a stark difference between heavily scrutinized prescription drug ads, regulated by the FDA, and “bad drug” ads, which receive limited oversight from the Federal Trade Commission.

The difference has a serious impact on patients’ health.  Concerned about the effect on patients, the American Medical Association passed a resolution in 2016 encouraging legislative or regulatory action on “bad drug” ads.  Echoing the association’s concerns, the Partnership to Protect Patient Health calls for educating patients and their caregivers about the design and intent of these commercials.  The partnership’s white paper identifies four strategies:

  1. Increasing transparency to help consumers realize they are sharing personal information with a private company.
  2. Adding a warning or disclosure to advise consumers about talking to a qualified medical professional before changing their medicine regimen. In addition, sponsors of the ads would have to identify themselves.
  3. Encouraging shared decision-making to promote conversations between patients and their doctors about the benefits and risks of any treatment.  Together with their doctor, patients should determine their best course of care.
  4. Preventing rule avoidance to keep ads sponsored by law firms from hiding behind a “non-attorney spokesman.”

Given their television habits, seniors are more likely to fall victim to the “bad drug” pitch.  But seniors, like all Americans, deserve to know the truth about deceptive drug-injury advertising.

The Partnership to Protect Patient Health supports patient safety and responsible practices.  In addition to raising awareness about the risks caused by “bad drug” ads, the organization aims to protect the relationship between patients and their health care providers.

To learn more, read “The Health Consequences of ‘Bad Drug’ Ads.

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