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Opinion 5.015 - Direct-to-Consumer Advertisements of Prescription Drugs

The medical profession needs to take an active role in ensuring that proper advertising guidelines are enforced and that the care patients receive is not compromised as a result of direct-to-consumer advertising. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a critical role in determining future directions of direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs, physicians should work to ensure that the FDA remains committed to advertising standards that protect patients’ health and safety. Moreover, physicians should encourage and engage in studies regarding the effect of direct-to-consumer advertising on patient health and medical care. Such studies should examine whether direct-to-consumer advertising improves the communication of health information; enhances the patient-physician relationship; and contains accurate and reasonable information on risks, precautions, adverse reactions, and costs.

Physicians must maintain professional standards of informed consent when prescribing. When a patient comes to a physician with a request for a drug he or she has seen advertised, the physician and the patient should engage in a dialogue that would assess and enhance the patient’s understanding of the treatment. Although physicians should not be biased against drugs that are advertised, physicians should resist commercially induced pressure to prescribe drugs that may not be indicated. Physicians should deny requests for inappropriate prescriptions and educate patients as to why certain advertised drugs may not be suitable treatment options, providing, when available, information on the cost effectiveness of different options.

Physicians must remain vigilant to assure that direct-to-consumer advertising does not promote false expectations. Physicians should be concerned about advertisements that do not enhance consumer education; do not convey a clear, accurate, and responsible health education message; do not refer patients to their physicians for more information; do not identify the target population at risk; and fail to discourage consumer self-diagnosis and self-treatment. Physicians may choose to report these concerns directly to the pharmaceutical company that sponsored the advertisement.

To assist the FDA in enforcing existing law and tracking the effects of direct-to-consumer advertising, physicians should, whenever reasonably possible, report to them advertisements that (1) do not provide a fair and balanced discussion of the use of the drug product for the disease, disorder, or condition; (2) do not clearly explain warnings, precautions, and potential adverse reactions associated with the drug product; (3) do not present summary information in language that can be understood by the consumer; (4) do not comply with applicable FDA rules, regulations, policies, and guidelines as provided by the FDA; or (5) do not provide collateral materials to educate both physicians and consumers. (II, III)

Issued June 1999 based on the report "Direct-to-Consumer Advertisement of Prescription Drugs," adopted December 1998 (Food and Drug Law Journal. 2000; 55: 119-24)