Pharmaceutical ads prone to lead patients astray, study says

by Megan Peck | 5/4/04 5:00am

Pharmaceutical advertisements that boldly challenge the viewer to "ask your doctor" about the benefits of the latest new wonder drug have become seemingly ubiquitous on television. However, it is the data that is absent from these advertisements that might provide the information most beneficial to consumers, a recent study suggests.

The study, completed by a team of Dartmouth Medical School researchers, suggests that direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising can often mislead consumers by over-emphasizing a drug's benefits instead of providing serious information about its effectiveness.

Some consumers may consequently be led to believe that advertised medications will always work, the study's authors found.

While the Food and Drug Administration requires that direct-to-consumer advertisements provide a list of the possible risks involved with the medications advertised, the exclusion of information concerning realistic positive benefits prompted the a team of researchers at DMS to develop and test a "prescription drugs benefit box" to accompany these advertisements. The benefit box is a table that displays the proportion of people who feel negative or positive effects by taking or not taking a particular director-to-consumer-advertised medication.

DMS professor Gilbert Welch, who conducted the study with fellow professors Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin, formulated the idea for the study while eating cereal with his daughter. Welch's cereal box, like all other packaged food products, contained the Food and Drug Administration's "nutrition fact box," which inspired Welch to investigate using a similar box in prescription drug advertisements.

Welch and his fellow researchers speculated that pharmaceutical drug information provided in this format could be invaluable to consumers. The FDA's reaction to their preliminary efforts also prompted the researchers to pursue the study.

"We presented the idea to the FDA, and they liked the idea but thought that people couldn't read this type of data," Welch said. "We thought otherwise, and it challenged us to do this study."

The study, which was conducted in the summer and fall of 2003, involved over 200 participants of varied ages, income levels and educational backgrounds. DMS researchers used three published director-to-consumer drug advertisements that both marketed drugs for common conditions and clearly explained the purpose of the medication in the main part of the commercial.

The names of the drugs were changed to prevent bias, and two versions of each advertisement were shown to participants -- one standard version and another version with a benefit box included. For all three advertisements, the percentage of participants who thought the drug seemed effective dropped after a version included the benefit box was shown.

After the study's completion, almost all of the participants said that the benefit boxes were easy to understand and that they felt that the benefit box should be required. Also, over 90 percent of participants said that they would prefer if commercials included the benefit box.

Direct-to-consumer advertisements are controversial and banned in all other countries except New Zealand, which is in the process of doing so.

However, Welch predicted that such commercials are here to stay in the United States. He noted that the DMS study is the first of its kind and added that he believes that it is a step toward improving the direct-to-consumer advertisements and providing a more complete set of information for consumers.

A representative from the FDA could not be reached for comment.