Direct-to-consumer (DTC) healthcare advertising has changed tremendously during the last several decades. A historical retrospective could conclude that the advent of the web and the rise of DTC healthcare advertising are intrinsically linked.
A Bit of History
Merck ran the first DTC ad in Reader’s Digest in 1981 to advertise its new antipneumococcal vaccine. Boots Pharmaceuticals quickly followed with the first broadcast DTC ads for their brand-name equivalent of ibuprofen. After a short voluntary moratorium on DTC advertising while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluated whether its existing fair-and-balanced guidelines for advertising to physicians also protected consumers, drug manufacturers were in full print advertising mode by the end of the 1980s. Because broadcast advertising posed challenges due to the requirement to present a lot of information in a very limited amount of time, manufacturers at that time were less likely to use television and radio as marketing outlets.
The web became available to the public for the first time in 1991. From that point on, information has become widely available to anyone who has access to a computer and interest in researching a particular topic. Until Facebook launched in February 2004, however, most of the knowledge patients could gain from the web was from government agencies and organizations that had the resources to post information online. Social media changed that and now patients turn also to blogs, Facebook accounts and Twitter for medical advice.
Today, strategic DTC pharmaceutical advertising, supplemented by unpaid social media “advertising” via shared patient experiences, is available in multiple mediums.
The Pros and Cons of DTC Advertising
Drug manufacturers are not the only healthcare entities that use DTC ads to influence consumers. Health plans use DTC ads to create separation from their competitors and to influence individuals who are considering enrollment. Hospitals and individual providers also turn to DTC advertising to attract new patients and to try to differentiate themselves from their competitors as evidence-based medicine is driving standardization and higher quality care overall.
In November 2015, the American Medical Association (AMA) called for a ban on DTC pharmaceutical and medical device advertising. The AMA and proponents of the ban fear that DTC advertising:
Disproportionately promotes drug benefits
Encourages overuse of prescription drugs
Complicates the patient-doctor relationship
Increases the market cost of drugs
Although the AMA is driving the proposed ban, many of the physicians it represents have mixed feelings about the risks and benefits of DTC advertising. An FDA survey of 500 physicians found that 41 percent of those who responded thought that through DTC ads their patients were more aware of treatment options and they were able to have more productive discussions with their patients. However, 65 percent of the physicians surveyed thought their patients were more confused about the benefits and risks of medications because of DTC ads. Of more concern were the responses from 81 percent of the physicians who reported that they felt pressured by their patients to prescribe a specific brand-name medication. Additionally, physicians report that they are seeing more patients initiate visits solely for the purpose of discussing a new drug they saw advertised on TV.
The same FDA survey solicited patient perspectives on DTC advertising. While 58 percent of respondents agreed that the ads gave them enough information for them to initiate a conversation with their physicians, 60 percent felt that drug ads do not contain enough information about the drug’s potential risks. There is also a significant risk that information contained in advertising is misunderstood or partially read because of the complexity of the message, the use of medical terminology or a viewer’s attention span.
Direct-to-consumer marketing clearly impacts the way in which healthcare organizations develop and implement promotional strategies. Check back later this week for more perspectives on DTC advertising and how it affects your landscape.
Interested in more perspectives on trends affecting the healthcare network? Check the MMIT blog each week for more content that is relevant to you.