I was reading something the other day from my home state of New Jersey that was quite thought-provoking on the subject of Direct-to-Consumer advertising by medical marketers. The category is huge, and lots of very good people are doing very good work to help the drug companies and medical device manufacturers take their products to market. But the practice is being criticized.
As reported earlier this month in the Star-Ledger (that's the Newark Star-Ledger for those who are Garden State-savvy) Richard J. Scott, an orthopedic surgeon from Red Bank who is also president of the Medical Society of New Jersey, said patients have begun asking for specific brands of artificial hip and knee replacements after seeing advertisements on television, in print and on the Internet. To me, that sounds like a good thing. Well, Dr. Scott doesn't like it. Here's what he had to say -
"The advertisements substitute Madison Avenue for science, and talk to consumers who don't understand that every new device is not necessarily better."
Consumers have grown accustomed to TV, print and online ads promoting cholesterol-lowering drugs, sleeping pills, anti-impotence medications and heartburn remedies. Now there is a trend toward surgically implanted devices such as prosthetic hips and artery stents. According to the rather negatively-slanted story in the Star-Ledger, since the late 1990s, prescription drugmakers have "flooded the airwaves, newspapers, magazines and now the Internet" with ads, spending more than $5 billion annually on direct-to-consumer marketing. Critics like Dr.Scott have complained the ads don't provide adequate warnings and have unnecessarily increased drug usage.
Echoing long-standing complaints about pharmaceutical advertising, some critics like Diana Zuckerman, head of the nonprofit National Research Center for Women and Families, say they find the ads for implanted medical devices even more troubling.
Zuckerman said the medical device ads tend to "have a lot of personal storytelling but very little information about the risks."
But wait, there's more. The medical device industry is under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department over how it markets to doctors, and by the Food and Drug Administration about its manufacturing practices. Just last week, the FDA cited Stryker, a leading maker of knee and hip replacements, for manufacturing problems at a plant in Mahwah, N.J.
I've heard this argument before, and I have to say that I know plenty of people who's lives have been improved by direct-to-consumer advertising for medical products of all kinds. I developed a DTC campaign for one of those hip implants over ten years ago, and I have to say the people who turned out to our seminars were truly appreciative of the information being presented. New awareness was being created. Doors were being opened. The average Joes and Jills, many of them elderly people with serious orthopedic conditions, were able to make educated decisions, rather than "deer in the headlights" decisions based on a rushed copnsultation with an impatient surgeon.
Remember when it was considered unthinkable for doctors to advertise? You Gen-Xer's will just have to trust me on that one. It just wasn't considered ethical. Well as the marketplace has changed, healthcare professionals have gotten - and I'll put quotes on this - "creative" - with marketing to drive more patients into their pipeline. I know because I've created a lot of that advertising too. So how then can some physicians presume to criticize the manufacturers for helping to inform consumers about their products?
I think DTC advertising is good for you. Here's why...
DTC advertising helps to make the average Joe or Jill aware that a problem they may in fact be experiencing is a recognized medical consdition. They in turn become more comfortable discussing it with their doctor and are no longer reluctant - or in my case just plain too stubborn - to make an appointment.
And, no they can't just march down to the corner pharmacy and get it over the counter.
As for the "not enough warnings" argument - there are plenty of warnings, perhpas too many, as the drug companies try to keep up with the FCC and cover their backsides. The doctors know the risks, the contraindications, the drug interactions - or at least they should.
No, I still think DTC advertising is a good thing, and it's here to stay.