What’s up with those Rx ads on TV anyway?

Prescription drugs are the fastest growing component of health care spending, to be sure.  But don’t go slamming Big Pharma for boosting health care costs in the U.S.  Arguably, the deployment of meds to control the harmful effects of medical maladies does more to defray the use of more costly interventions than anything else we do in health care.  But do those slick drug ads that dominate prime time, late night and just about all other time slots on radio and television help or hinder this purpose?   Moreover, do they work?  That is, does marketing drugs directly to patients boost sales for drug companies?  “Yes,” regarding the latter, “and really well, too,” I hasten to add.

The results of a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) suggest that consumers rush to their doctors for access to media-hawked meds, notwithstanding all the potential and scary side effects the Food and Drug Administration require drug companies to include in their ads.  In fact, those drugs that may cause depression, cancer, strokes, heart attacks and that may lead to suicide or death are the more sought after offerings.  Go figure?  Anyway, the KFF summarized the results of its survey as follows:

“A large majority of Americans (82 percent) report seeing or hearing prescription drug ads, with about 3 in 10 (28 percent) saying they have talked with a doctor about a specific medicine as a result of an ad. About half of the public (51 percent) say they think that prescription drug advertising is mostly a good thing and many say drug advertisements do a good or excellent job of telling consumers which condition or disease the drug is designed to treat (50 percent), as well as the potential benefits (47 percent) and potential side effects they might experience (44 percent).”

More importantly, of the 28 percent who asked their doctors about a drug marketed on the radio or in a television ad, 12 percent said they were given a script for it.  I’m not that good at math, but what that means is that direct-to-consumer marketing by Big Pharma companies yields about one new customer for every 30 listeners/viewers their ads reach.  And when you factor in that the ads reach 82 percent of the adult population in their media markets… not a bad investment, yes?

Does this Rx marketing strategy counter efforts to constrain the growth in health care costs?  I don’t know if it helps, but I don’t believe it adds to the problem in a material way either.

In 2013, prescription drugs accounted for 9.3 percent of all health care costs in the U.S.—nearly 12 percent for the Medicare program— and though considerable, clearly not the big ticket cost item in health care spending.

The prevalence of chronic disease in the population is the biggest, single factor driving costs higher in our rapidly expanding and aging U.S. population.  Fifteen percent (15%) of all Medicare beneficiaries are afflicted with three or more chronic medical conditions and, as a result, drive almost 75 percent of that program’s total spending.

When the prevalence of chronic disease grows in a population, that means our prevention, health education, health promotion and risk reduction efforts are failing or have failed.  What’s left to do then is to effectively manage the chronic diseases of the afflicted, and that’s what prescription meds do best by curing or keeping chronic diseases from worsening, thereby avoiding more costly forays into our acute care treatment arena.  In fact, for every one percent increase in the prevalence of chronic disease, there is a corresponding six percent increase in medical care service consumption.  Again, that circumstance is the leading cause behind our high rate of growth in health care costs.