According to CommonHealth, some of the main criticisms of DTC advertising include:
- It increases requests for branded medications
- It decreases the odds that physicians will discuss the benefits and risks of advertised drugs with patients
CommonHealth conducted a linguistic analysis of 440 conversations between physicians and patients about allergies, hypertension and cholesterol. In its press release CommonHealth said it found:
- Patient-initiated prescription drug requests are not driven by DTC advertising
- DTC advertising is rarely referenced by patients (0.6% of visits) and never as "I saw/heard this ad and want this prescription drug"
- DTC advertising does not harm the balance of risk-vs.-benefit discussions in observed visits, regardless of DTC spend in the given category
CommonHealth’s study left a number of people scratching their heads. If patients are not asking for branded medications after seeing an advertisement, what are pharmaceutical companies paying for?
John Mack Digs Deeper
John Mack, who writes the popular Pharma Marketing Blog, was confused by the study as well. He asked CommonHealth for more information about its research, but his request was denied. However, the company told him that it submitted more information about the study to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, no information was available on the FDA’s Website about the study. In the end, Mack filed a Freedom Of Information Act request to get more information about the study.
In a post about the materials he received from the FDA, Mack argued that CommonHealth “selectively released” information about the study and incorrectly characterized the results. He said:
“Mentioning DTC ads vs. mentioning drugs by brand name; that's a big difference. But the trade press . . . is spinning the study to prove a point rather than to help understand how DTC works. The point they want to prove is that DTC does not cause consumers to ask for more expensive medicines. The study proves no such thing, yet CommonHealth is aiding and abetting the misinterpretation of its study by denying us access to their data.”
I think what got people confused about the study results was the first point in the CommonHealth press release. They said the study shows that “patient-initiated prescription drug requests are not driven by DTC advertising.” I read this sentence to mean that patients are not asking for drugs because they saw them advertised on TV.
Another interesting fact is that CommonHealth’s Joe Gattuso appears to go out of his way to reassure us that DTC advertising is working. In an interview he conducted with Pharmaceutical Executive (PE) that was published in October, Gattuso addressed this issue. During the interview, PE asked: “So, is DTC advertising not working?” Gattuso replied:
“Look at it from a marketing point of view. If you say, ‘If I invest X amount of dollars, do I get a return?’ the answer in many successful campaigns is yes, it does move the needle in terms of brand prescribing. We're simply saying that it doesn't appear that a high percentage of patients are going to the doctor and directly saying, ‘I saw X brand on TV and that's what I want.’ And a lot of the critics of DTC have suggested that that's the case."
So, the question remains: Are drug companies wasting their money on DTC advertising? According to Gattuso, the answer is no because DTC commercials increase prescriptions.
Clearly, there is a disconnect here. If patients aren’t asking for advertised drugs then why/how is DTC advertising increasing prescriptions? CommonHealth does not have an answer to this question. DTC works, but they don’t know how.
Unfortunately for CommonHealth this study does little to refute opponents of DTC advertising. Imagine this dialogue between critics and CommonHealth:
Critic: Does DTC advertising increase drug prescribing?
CommonHealth: Yes, but not because patients are asking for drugs.
Critic: Really? I’m annoyed that DTC drives scripts for advertised drugs. I don’t care how it happens. Whether or not a patient asks for a drug is irrelevant to me. The commercials are increasing prescribing and I want to put a stop to them.
Until CommonHealth can show that DTC advertising does not drive uptake it will have a hard time rebutting critics of this marketing practice. Right now it appears that pharmaceutical companies are not wasting their money on DTC commercials.