Interesting package of stories today in the L.A. Times, about drug advertising and the myriad ways in which it creeps into the way we get care in the United States.
No matter what type of media we rely on, drug ads -- or ads for some sort wellness product -- proliferate. First, there's TV, the place we're perhaps most ensnared, as we loll lazily on the couch waiting for our favorite show to start back up. When I caught the evening news last night, for just one example, there were ads for Viagra (this commercial, which sort of made me stare slack-jawed and somewhat aghast at the screen), Restasis eye drops and Activia yogurt, which apparently, uh, "reduces long intestinal transit time" (via six tasty flavors, of course).
Print ads in magazines woo us, too, with promises that life with herpes could mean soothing walks on the beach, and reminders that even if you're powerful enough to run a company or fight fires, you're not immune to deadly blood clots.
The Internet isn't free of ads, either, since glitzy buttons and banners are always beckoning surfers to click on through to check out the magic of this medication or that one. And even back in the days before ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage (which is to say, perhaps even before your grandmother hopped on the Information Superhighway), these ads were proving the most effective of the bunch: Pharmaceutical companies spent $14 online per customer that requested the advertised drug, $197 per customer through TV ads, and $220 via print ads, according to a 2000 poll from Cyber Dialogue.
But the part that most consumers don't see so clearly is the role that pharmaceutical companies play in pitching to the doctors who hold prescribing power. Some doctors have called for their peers to stop meeting with the drug reps who visit their offices to hand out free samples and info on new meds, or to stop taking drug samples from reps. Some docs even refuse to so much as scribble notes with the flashy pens emblazoned with drug and equipment brand names.
But drug companies are making a strong push to see that their services -- and hence, their products -- are viewed as indispensable. And the efforts are carefully planned and executed, according to one of the sidebars in the Times package:
Pharmaceuticals' marketing departments look to hire "young, attractive people, quite charismatic" -- and scientific training is completely optional, says Ahari, now a researcher at the UC San Francisco's School of Pharmacy, who describes his former profession on a website (www.Pharmedout.org) devoted to exposing drug company marketing practices.
"They're looking for gender icons -- cheerleaders and ex-military types -- fun to be with, someone with whom you'd like to have a beer or watch a game," Ahari says. To establish friendship and assure access to a physician, a detailer "will scour a doctor's office for objects -- a tennis racquet, Russian novels, '70s rock music," wrote Ahari and Adriane Fugh-Berman, a Georgetown University physician, in an article published by the Public Library of Medicine in April.
Next time you go to the doctor, ask them to tell you about their practices when it comes to samples and meet-and-greets with drug reps. Did they have a brown bag turkey sandwich from home for lunch, or a catered lunch courtesy a pharmaceutical company? Is the exam room filled with notepads, posters and anatomical models stamped with brand names?
I've heard compelling arguments on both sides of this issue -- on one hand, samples often provide an endless stream of free drugs to patients who otherwise can't afford them. But some doctors say that even taking seemingly meaningless desk toy "gifts" from big pharma colors their judgment when it comes to choosing which drug to prescribe.
So tell me, how do these pitches impact you as a patient? Are you swayed by drug ads? And how do you feel about a doctor who has taken gifts before prescribing a drug or handing out samples of it? I'd like to hear from health care professionals, too, about your own feelings on sampling and pharmaceutical gifts. Where do you draw the line?