Do Drug and Healthcare Ads Push Ethical Boundaries?

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Crop doctor with stethoscope in hospital, representing healthcare ads.

In the past four years, pharmaceutical companies have more than doubled their healthcare ad spending, making it the second-fastest growing ad category in the nation. Other healthcare providers, from local hospitals to nationally known cancer treatment centers, are also increasing their advertising. But when do healthcare promotions cross ethical boundaries and the ancient pledge to all patients of “do no harm”?

When a doctor writes a prescription, most of us assume that we will walk out of the pharmacy with the drug best suited for the diagnosis, but what if the doctor chose a new drug based on a big marketing push by the manufacturer? Or maybe it’s the other way around…patients often request a particular brand-name drug after seeing hundreds of television ads with actors or well-known celebrities vouching for its effectiveness.

So far, pharmaceutical companies have shelled out $2.8 billon (this year) to run direct-to-consumer television ads publicizing the benefits of around 70 prescription drugs. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of television ads for medications grew 65 percent as companies increasingly targeted the exploding and lucrative baby boomer market.

The drug companies are not alone in playing the healthcare advertising sweepstakes. Hospitals are spending more than ever on advertising and, as with other products, that advertising is filled with a lot of promises, says Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. “So a hospital can go out and say, ‘This is where miracles happen. And here’s Joe. Joe was about to die. And now Joe is going to live forever.’ ”

Pushing the Ethical Boundaries with Healthcare Ads

Some healthcare marketing and advertising crosses the line, distorting the truth about risk and effectiveness. Before you push your doctor to prescribe a new medication advertised on television or purchase detox tea from a Hollywood celebrity, consider the following first:

Where are you getting your information?

Glossy ads can be tempting. Online forums can be full of disinformation. Choose your sources carefully. For example, a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that 90 percent of Wikipedia articles concerning the 10 costliest medical conditions contained inaccurate data. Keep in mind that Wikipedia articles can be edited by anyone, including people working for healthcare companies.

Who is selling you a medication or medical device?

Celebrity endorsements are all the rage these days, from beauty products to insurance to medications and remedies. A friendly and famous face may say he or she is promoting a new drug or treatment because of personal conviction, but what they might not be saying is they are often getting paid big bucks to do so.

Truth in Advertising (TINA), a nonprofit that works to protect consumers from false advertising, filed formal complaints against GOOP, a lifestyle company run by Gwyneth Paltrow. They cite 51 examples of what they consider unsafe treatments, and argue that GOOP “does not possess the competent and reliable scientific evidence required by law to make such claims.”

Are the promises you hear vague or overly positive?

Some patients suffering from especially difficult and even fatal diseases are criticizing what they see as overly positive ads for medications and treatments. These advertisements often feature happy, healed patients and their families with stories of miraculous recoveries. But many patients say the ads spread false hope, or worse yet, make them feel as though they are still sick because of their own failings rather than the reality of their illnesses.

Is that new medication really necessary?

When a new drug is patented and finally hits the market, it can only be sold exclusively for a limited period of time. Once a generic version is available, the price drops dramatically. This means that the manufacturers of brand-name medications need to push the new drug as aggressively as possible to recoup their investment and hit earnings targets. It also means that some pharmaceutical companies create new medications, that some of which have been shown in studies to be quite similar to existing medications, just so they can slap on a new name and start the brand-name marketing cycle all over again.

Is your doctor receiving money or perks from pharmaceutical companies?

A ProPublica study revealed that doctors who receive money or meals from drug and device makers – even just small gifts – prescribe a higher percentage of brand-name drugs overall than doctors who don’t. Check out Dollars for Docs, a website that tracks payments made to healthcare professionals and facilities.

Cutting through the Advertising Clutter

So who can you trust for good information about various healthcare treatments and medications?

Talk to your doctor first. Ask about the side effects of a particular medication and whether there is a generic available. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself if you feel as though you are being pushed into something unnecessary. That might also mean getting a second opinion.

Do some of your own research as well, starting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Click here to check approvals and to see if a medication has been recalled. Then instead of a random Google search, look for healthcare websites that have a reputation for independence and trusted information, such as Mayo Clinic.

And finally, be skeptical about the promises you hear being made in healthcare advertising and marketing. As Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, put it: “It’s the basics of marketing. In order to sell products and services, you have to sell hope.” In other words, buyer beware.

Young Law Group is a nationwide leader in whistleblower representation and has successfully represented numerous clients in some of the nation’s largest qui tam cases for over a decade.  For a free confidential consultation, please call Eric L. Young, Esquire at  (800) 590-4116 or complete our online form.