Survey shows benefits of prescription drug advertising, few adverse effects

February 26, 2003

Direct-to-consumer drug advertising is prompting patients to seek medical advice about health concerns, resulting in new diagnoses and additional health care recommendations without obvious short term negative impacts on quality-of-life outcomes, according to a survey published today as a Health Affairs Web exclusive.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and Harris Interactive found that 35 percent of respondents to their survey of 3,000 adults between July 2001 and January 2002 had discussed an advertised drug or other health concern with their doctor as a result of direct-to-consumer advertising.

Of those patients prompted by drug advertising to discuss a health condition with their doctor, one-quarter received a new diagnosis, of which 43 percent were such high-priority conditions as arthritis, high cholesterol, or diabetes, the survey found. About four out of five patients who received a prescription drug and took it as prescribed found that they felt much better or somewhat better overall after taking the drug. Results were similar whether they took the advertised drug or another drug.

Other health benefits resulted from the physician visits, the survey found. While nearly three-quarters of physician visits prompted by drug advertising resulted in a prescription, doctors also suggested a lifestyle change in more than half of such visits and suggested the patients stop smoking or drinking in more than one-third. For patients with high-priority conditions, those numbers were even higher: Doctors wrote prescriptions in more than four out of five, suggested lifestyle changes in two-thirds, and suggested that patients stop smoking or drinking in more than 42 percent.

The authors cautioned that patients rely on many sources of health information, and therefore ascribing benefits to prescription drug advertising is difficult. Nevertheless, "our results suggest that (drug advertising) is a potentially powerful source of consumer health information with effects that include, but also transcend, promoting the use of advertised drugs," write the authors, led by Joel S. Weissman, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. "(Drug advertising) appears to affect patients' behavior, resulting in more physician visits that detect treatable disease but also precipitating a variety of other health actions whose consequences remain to be understood."

The survey is accompanied by five perspectives debating the pros and cons of direct-to-consumer drug advertising.
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Health Affairs, published by Project HOPE, is a bimonthly multidisciplinary journal devoted to publishing the leading edge in health policy thought and research.

Health Affairs

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