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Dr. Joseph Sirven: How TV Drug Ads Impact Doctors

Dr. Joseph Sirven
Dr. Joseph Sirven
Dr. Joseph Sirven

The ads boom over our family room.  “Talk to you doctor,” ends a TV drug commercial.

My son looks at me and says, “Dad, do people actually ask for these meds even after they’ve heard the horrible side effects like TB, lymphoma and death?  Do you even prescribe these drugs/"

I honestly had never considered the question, but he made me think about the role direct to consumer pharma ads play in my practice.

Once a taboo, prescription TV drug ads are allowed in only three countries in the world: New Zealand, Brazil and the United States. Direct to consumer ads started in the U.S. in 1997 with the allergy drug Claritin. Now there are ads for a veritable textbook of various maladies ranging from toenail fungus to erectile dysfunction. 

The ads work as most of these drugs are huge sellers. According to one New England Journal of Medicine analysis, there has been a 330 percent increase in direct to consumer TV ad spending over the time these commercials have been allowed.

The AMA has taken notice calling for an all-out ban on these commercials because they unnecessarily increase healthcare costs. The AMA has a point. Brand name drugs are expensive as often there are no generic versions.

As I think about my son’s question, I realize patients do ask me about these medications and sometimes I remember the drug and its ad — how can you not?  So now, when patients ask me about a medication they saw on TV, I use it as a conversation tool to explore what’s wrong with their current medication.

Maybe, instead of ending the ad with, “Go ask your doctor,” these ads should end with, "Go ask your pharmaceutical company why these ads are on TV and where is the evidence that shows this drug is worth the price, the side effects and  better than what is already out there."

Dr. Sirven is the chairman of neurology at the Mayo Clinic.