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Diagnosis by Television

I am fascinated by the sheer volume of television advertisements for medications only physicians can prescribe, and flabbergasted by the audacity with which these advertisers promote them.  Are we now allowing pharmaceutical companies to diagnose what ails us and decide which medications might remedy the situation?

A recent advertisement for Xialto directed at those who suffer from atrial fibrillation stands out above the rest.  If you’re suffering from atrial fibrillation, my hope is that your internist has suggested a cardiologist to assist you with the symptoms and (hopefully) find a path to correcting the matter.  But based on the commercials I see, I imagine all sorts of people walking into their doctor’s offices and saying “Hey, how about a little Xialto? The ad on TV says it really works.”

Other offenders that come to mind include Lyrica for fibromyalgia, Symbicort for COPD (or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and Crestor for high cholesterol. All of the above are serious medical conditions, yet the makers of these medications make them sound as easy to remedy as a headache.

And don’t forget Abilify and Cymbalta for clinical depression.  Granted, every pharmaceutical ad is accompanied by a mile-long disclaimer.  But is anyone holding these companies accountable for actively marketing a quick fix for depression?  Do they really have any clue what the viewer has experienced to trigger these recent or ongoing episodes of sadness or panic?  I think not.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most popular, frequently seen and commonly referenced ads for Cialis, Viagra, Levistra and other erectile dysfunction medications.  In addition to nonsensical imagery like bathtubs on a cliff, the speed reading of critical information is almost criminal.  Auditions for narrating a Cialis commercial must include the question: How fast can you say “Possible side effects include severe headaches, muscle aches, indigestion, diarrhea, dizziness, vision loss and an erection that lasts more than four hours.

You can hardly digest this information when hearing it so quickly – and it’s worth noting that the “four hour erection” is the side effect mentioned last.  That helps ensure it’ll also be the side effect mentioned most often at cocktail parties.  But as one fellow confided recently over his martini, “There’s really nothing funny about a four hour erection.” And he’s right. The wrong guy could actually die from such a condition.

Of course, the one thing you’ll never hear about in any of these advertisements are the cost of the prescription. Nor will you be told if these medications are covered by your medical insurance.

As usual, this issue has two clearly defined sides. Dr. Alan Hillman of the University of Pennsylvania offers his succinct opinion of these advertisements: “Health care is not a consumer good that should be advertised like pancakes. It’s just too complicated. Health care education must be performed by professionals — doctors, nurses — not by a professional spokesman who quickly mentions possible side effects under his breath.”

In November 2015, The American Medical Association (AMA) called for a ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising in the U.S. of prescription drugs and medical devices. The AMA’s chief argument claimed the “growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives.”

On the other side of this issue are patient advocates, who believe that advertisements in print and online actually help educate consumers and allow patients to access important information they can share with family, friends and overworked doctors who have little time for drug research.

Many patients are only allocated 15-30 minutes for discussion during an annual physical with their internist. So, coming to these appointments armed with facts about new medications may be beneficial. (See my earlier post on Preparing for Your Annual Physical for more specific ideas).

Interestingly enough, the United States is one of only two first-world countries that allow advertising of physician-prescribed medications directly to consumers. And one of the last in the world to provide its citizens with universal health care.

But what do you think? Love those ads? Or hate them? Do they provide meaningful information? Or create false hope? Please share your thoughts and opinions in the Comments section below.

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Lee Ann Monfredini

Lee Ann Monfredini

Lee Ann Monfredini is the founder of 360Women and a life-long advocate of women’s issues, political activism, social volunteerism, organizational accountability and personal responsibility. A graduate of the University of San Francisco with a degree in Non-Profit Management, she’s not only served on the boards and executive teams of some of the most respected health organizations in the Bay Area, but built a successful second career as one of the most respected realtors in the market. She can be reached at leeann@360women.net.

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