Fake DTC news mustn't drive the healthcare debate

  • by: Peter Pitts |
  • 03/27/2017
Policy development by sound bite is becoming a chronic disease. Exhibit A: “Pharma spends more on marketing and sales than on R&D.”

The Washington Post wrote about it.

John Oliver talked about it.

Legislators are fixated on it.

Letters to the Wall Street Journal complained about it.

Let’s look at the record – because the devil is in the details – and it starts with what “sales and marketing” means.

When pundits, politicians, and policymakers speak about “sales and marketing,” the picture they are painting is of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising – the public face of Big Pharma. So, let’s set the record straight on that straight away. In 2016 $5.6 billion was spent on DTC. Same period R&D spending is roughly $70 billion. Amorous middle-aged couples in claw foot bathtubs are a lot sexier than excel spreadsheets, but facts are pesky things. Surprised?

Here’s another eye-opener, the category of “marketing and sales” also includes product sampling and communications to physicians, legal and accounting fees, salaries, rent and utilities, and all post-licensure programs deemed necessary by the FDA. Nuts and bolts aren’t cheap. It’s also important to understand that the R&D reported investment is only for pre-approval investment and doesn't take into consideration post approval R&D expenditures, which were $20 billion in 2011 and most likely, much higher today.

But let’s address the elephant in the room – DTC advertising. Yes – it’s good for business (otherwise it wouldn't exist) but it’s also good for the public health. And, no, it doesn’t make medicines more expensive.

The good news is that an informed healthcare consumer is a healthier citizen.  And while information comes from many sources outside of the physician’s office – one of the most pervasive channels is through direct-to-consumer advertising.

Properly done, pharmaceutical advertising helps to de-stigmatize certain diseases and encourages people to talk with their doctors about problems previously considered taboo -- like depression. Other research demonstrated little or no correlation between a brand's DTC spending and it's cost. In other words, brands that spend more heavily on DTC advertising do not necessarily cost more than their less-advertised competition.

FDA research, of patients who visited their doctors because of an ad they saw, and who asked about that prescription drug by brand name, 87 percent actually had the condition the drug treats. And in 6 percent of those DTC-generated visits, a previously undiagnosed condition was discovered. Why is that so important? Because earlier detection combined with appropriate treatment means that more people will live longer, healthier, more productive lives without having to confront riskier, more costly medical interventions later on.

Only 7 percent of doctors said they felt "very pressured to prescribe" a particular advertised drug. When the FDA panel probed into the question of "pressure to prescribe," what we found out was that the real pressure was time pressure. More patients are coming in armed with more questions. A study in Health Affairs arrived at a similar conclusion. According to the study, ad- inspired doctor visits resulted in the advertised medicine being prescribed in only about 47 per cent of cases. Put another way, patients didn't get a prescription for the medicine they came in to discuss on more than half their visits. Even with advertising, doctors exert appropriate judgment when they prescribe drugs.

According to the FDA study, a majority of doctors feel that DTC advertising increases patient awareness and involvement, improves compliance, and enhances the overall doctor-patient relationship. But we can - we must - do better. Health care information is the consumer's Rosetta Stone, and the FDA, public policy institutes, pharmaceutical firms, communications professionals, health care providers, disease organizations, patient advocates, academics along with state and federal legislators must help design 21st century DTC advertising that not only helps to sell product, but also advances the public health.

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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