Do ads for drugs affect physician prescribing behavior?

January 22, 2012  |  General

Open most any medical journal, including the most prestigious of them, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, and you will see page upon page of glossy advertisements from drug companies for their products. This has been going on for many decades. Do these ads affect physician behavior? Are we more likely to prescribe ones we read about in ads rather than in scientific reports?

There has always been a concern that advertising, not science, can affect doctors’ prescribing practices. Surely the drug companies think so, or they wouldn’t spend all the money on the ads. They’re not stupid. Now one medical journal, Emergency Medicine Australasia, has taken a stand against the practice; they’ve banned drug company advertising from their pages. In an editorial, they explained why.

This followed extensive debate on the growing evidence about the detrimental effects of the drug industry in medicine. Among the issues discussed were that the industry, one of the most profitable in the world, distorts research findings, such that drug company sponsored research is approximately four times as likely to be favourable to its product than independently funded research; authors of company-sponsored research are far more likely to recommend a company’s drug than independent researchers, and researchers with industry connections are more likely to publish data favourable to a company’s product than those without; selective reporting of results by industry is likely to inflate our views of the efficacy of company products; the drug industry has been shown to engage in dubious and unethical publishing practices, including guest and ghost authorship, and to apply pressure to academics to withhold negative findings; and the industry spends enormous amounts of money on advertising, which has been shown to change the prescribing practices of doctors, increasing sales in a dose-related manner to the volume of advertising.

Doctors, for their part, generally claim that such advertising has no effect at all on their prescribing practices. I know I would deny it. But really, how would I know? Advertisers put enormous effort into sending subliminal messages that work beneath the surface of our conscious radar. I could be manipulated as much as the next physician.

Drug companies value drug advertising in medical journals because it works. It is regarded as highly effective by pharmaceutical marketers, generating at least US $2-5 in revenue per dollar spent, with returns growing in the long term.

Not taking drug company ads has large financial consequences for journals, especially the second and third-rank ones; they more or less run on advertising revenue. The top ranking journals can depend upon high subscription fees; the lesser ones can’t. There are also many journals sent out to doctors that are actually free. We call them “throw-aways.” Trash cans next to the mailboxes in doctors’ lounges are stuffed with them. These can have a useful bit of information in them here and there, but mostly they are massive advertisements for the pharmaceutical industry. Doctors recognize this. But I think we’re less aware of the huge number of ads that appear in highly-ranked journals.

Emergency Medicine Australasia is a foreign journal, based in Australia, and has small impact on American physicians. But the principle they are arguing may well become a trend. I think the internet will help this, since the high costs of printing and mailing medical journals could be dramatically reduced by having the journals online only. Only a small paid editorial staff would be required, since the folks who review and decide on publication are nearly all unpaid as it is. (I used to do that a lot; you get an annual thank-you note — and maybe a calendar —  for your efforts.)

I think it’s something to watch closely.

Leave a Reply