by Jen Jenkins
Around a decade ago health care advertising was not something likely to turn up on prime-time television or in elite magazines. Generally, hospitals and doctors considered the advertising of health care tacky and questionable from an ethical standpoint. Nowadays, however, this type of advertising is targeting patients with either good insurance or those who are able to afford the priciest drugs out-of-pocket. Patients are no longer seen as simply patients to hospitals and clinics, but rather as a customer base to which it is necessary to market what they are selling: drugs.
In 2014, the health care industry spent $14 billion on advertising, jumping 20 percent since 2011. In this same time frame, although magazine advertising saw a decline along with the publishing industry, television advertising rose 55 percent for hospitals and 30 percent for prescription drugs. Drug companies once focused on promoting products that could be prescribed to millions of people, such as pain killers. Now, the focus is on niche medicines that are much more expensive and prescribed to far fewer people.
According to Holly Campbell, a spokeswoman for the pharmaceutical manufacturers trade association, PhRMA, drug makers are “designing their advertising to provide scientifically accurate information to help patients better understand their health care and treatment options” and ultimately to help patients make better decisions. However, health economists and doctors alike are raising concerns about the advertising trend which they say increases prices and influences patients to seek out treatment that may be inappropriate or too expensive. Last year, the American Medical Association recommended a ban on this type of advertising due to concern over “the negative impact of commercially driven promotions.” The United States and New Zealand are the only countries that even allow drugs to be advertised to consumers in this way.
Research is showing that rather than helping consumers make better or more informed choices, advertising instead tends to drive patients to patented drugs and more expensive treatments. This New York Times article provides more information on this research and extensively compares different drugs that are heavily promoted along with their pricing. Federal regulations do not require advertisements to say how much medicines cost, how well they work or if there is a cheaper option available. Overall, that means that patients are not getting nearly as much beneficial information from these advertisements as they think. In fact, doctors say that most patients come in asking for medicines and treatments that are far more expensive than alternatives or that are not necessary in the first place.
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