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Why Do We See Prescription Drug Ads on TV?

Posted Nov 24th, 2008 by Trisha Torrey

…and how can we use them to improve our quality of life?

We frequently see TV commercials and magazine ads for prescription drugs, even though we can’t buy them without a prescription.

Why do those drug companies advertise directly to us? In short, because it works.

Works for whom? The prescription drug companies that do the advertising. These companies are boosting their profits by advertising their products on TV. They believe that by letting us viewers know those drugs are available, we’ll ask our doctors to prescribe them, and they will make more money.

In fact, the ads work very well for them. Since pharmaceutical companies began advertising on TV, in magazines and online, their profits have increased by millions of dollars each year. Millions of OUR dollars each year.

But does that work for us patients? Not always. Yes, many of us have found those drugs to be helpful, but sometimes no more helpful than other steps we might take that might cost us far less.

Here’s an example of how this happens. See if it sounds familiar:
Francine has suffered from heartburn for years. She has been popping antacids to try to control it. Her father had the same problem, so Francine figures heartburn and stomach upset run in her family. She’s given up many of her favorite foods including tomatoes and chocolate, just to try to keep that horrible acid at bay.

One day she noticed a TV ad for a purple-colored pill that would control the acid. How simple that might be to take one of those pills! So she made an appointment with her doctor, told him she wanted a prescription for that purple-colored drug, and after asking her a few questions, he diagnosed her with acid reflux, then wrote the prescription for her.

It’s expensive, that purple drug. Because she has no insurance, Francine is spending more than $150 a month. But she figures it’s worth it because now she can eat chocolate and tomatoes, and all those other foods she loves and she rarely has problems with acid reflux.

What’s wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong is that Francine might be able to get the same kind of relief for less than $20 a month, if only she had taken some time to think about that TV commercial.

What should Francine have done differently?
When we see drug ads, they focus on the kinds of relief we might find by taking their dugs. In desperate want of that relief, we are blinded to the common sense approach. So here’s a good reminder of what that common sense approach might be:

If you see an ad for a drug that will improve the quality of your life, then write down the name of it so you can do a little research. The idea is to plan for a conversation with your doctor, by gathering as much information as you can about more than just that one drug. The result of that conversation will be your best outcome: the best drug (if any,) at the lowest price, for the most improvement in your quality of life.

Look up the name of the advertised drug online. You can start here on PatientAssistance.com. There are two pieces of information you want to locate. First, find the name of the generic version of the drug, and second, the name of the “class” of drugs it belongs to. In the case of the purple-colored pill, you will learn that its generic form is called esomeprazole, and its class is “proton pump inhibitors.”

In some cases, you’ll learn that the generic drug is available for sale and might cost you less than the branded drug. In all cases, you can then research the class of drugs to find out what other drugs might be available that might have the same affect on your health. While you are researching, check out the other pieces of important information about the drug, like what the side effects are, and what drug conflicts there might be with other drugs you already take.

In your search, you may also come upon a website created specifically for that advertised drug. You may want to review it, but remember, that information is not intended to give you objective information. It’s intended to sell the drug to you, and to boost the profits of the company that makes it.

Once you’ve completed your research, then it’s time to make the appointment with your doctor. During your appointment, explain what the symptoms are that made you want to learn more about the drugs you have listed, then ask (don’t tell!) your doctor which one is the best choice for your health.

You’ll also want to know which choice fits your wallet the best, too. Your doctor may not have the answer to that question. If not, then ask him to list all the drugs that are possibilities for you. Then you can double check your insurance plan’s formulary (lists of drugs and pricing tiers) to see which one is most cost effective for you, too.

We are patients, yes. But we are consumers, too. When it comes to weighing quality vs cost, we need to think both ways to get the best value for our health.

About the author

Trisha Torrey is Every Patient's Advocate. She is a newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, national speaker, and the guide to patient empowerment at About.com.

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