The U.S. is one of only a small number of countries that allow fairly liberal pharmaceutical marketing. Since 1997, relaxed FDA regulations have given pharmaceutical companies free reign to advertise as long as they meet certain conditions of accuracy and fairness. The industry has responded to the tune of more than $5 billion annually, according to a 2017 analysis from Harvard.
Marketing obviously has plenty of upsides for the business side of medicine. Pharmaceutical companies invest a lot because marketing produces a lot. Yet there are hidden dangers that come with so much marketing. It is important that we, as a society, pay attention to them.
For the record, the marketing referred to in this post is separate from retail marketing. This post does not address local drugstores and online pharmacies marketing their retail services. What pharmaceutical manufacturers do with marketing is a far cry from the advertising you might see from an operation like Canada Pharmacy.
Treatment for Nonexistent Conditions
One of the hidden dangers of pharmaceutical marketing is its potential to encourage patients to seek treatment for nonexistent conditions. Consider a football fan constantly exposed to advertisements for erectile dysfunction medications. He might eventually be conditioned to believe that his problems in the romance department are due to a physical condition he doesn’t really suffer from.
This matters for the simple fact that writing a prescription will not help this particular patient if erectile dysfunction isn’t the real problem. Prescribing the drug will only reduce his bank account balance and give him false sense of hope.
Stoking Medication Fears
If pharmaceutical companies want to advertise a particular drug explicitly for a given condition, they must also disclose potential side effects. This is good in the sense that consumers need to know about the side effects of any drug before taking it. But such disclosures can also have a negative effect.
Some patients exposed to incessant advertising could develop an irrational fear of the medication in question. They might be so fearful of potential side effects that they will not even consider a prescription, despite a doctor insisting that the drug would be helpful.
The reality of pharmaceutical marketing is that advertisements do not tell the whole story. In fact, they tell very little of the story at all. This can have a detrimental impact on the way consumers view prescription medications.
Diminishing the Doctor’s Expertise
Pharmaceutical marketing presents the very real possibility of diminishing the doctor’s expertise in healthcare. By design, it is the pharmaceutical company’s job to develop drugs for treating certain conditions. It is the doctor’s job to diagnose such conditions and determine the best course of treatment. Pharmaceutical marketing can upend the delicate balance.
A well-produced advertisement can give the impression that the pharmaceutical company is the real medical authority. It can undermine a doctor’s knowledge and experience. And when that happens, it makes for an extremely uncomfortable discussion between doctor and patient. It might even lead to a certain level of mistrust.
Striking the Right Balance
Pharmaceutical marketing’s hidden dangers are very real. Nonetheless, they are not sufficient reason to turn back the clock and ban such advertising altogether. It is better to find a way to strike the right balance between the industry’s marketing needs and how marketing affects patient perceptions.
Finding that balance might not be the easiest thing in the world to do, but it can be done. Success would lead to better pharmaceutical advertisements that get the point across without being misleading or encouraging inappropriate responses from consumers. Will such balance ever be achieved? Probably not. And that is the most unfortunate part of it all.