DTC Drug Ads Boost Usage, Adherence

Direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs is back in the spotlight again following the American Medical Association’s recommendation that such ads be banned. The AMA’s new position, reversing its earlier stance, cited evidence that DTC prescription drug ads result in people taking medications they don’t need or that are unnecessarily expensive, raising healthcare prices and wasting doctors’ time.

While the most recent round of this longstanding debate is just beginning, marketers and drug companies opposed to the AMA suggestion already have some ammunition to respond to these claims, showing that DTC prescription drug ads may be beneficial to consumer healthcare by boosting patient adherence to drug regimes.

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, titled “Prescription Drug Advertising and Drug Utilization: The Role of Medicare Part D,” examines correlations between exposure to DTC ads on TV and overall prescription drug utilization by Medicare enrollees, as well as by younger consumers.



The study originally set out to determine whether, following the introduction of Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage in 2006, there was a “spillover” effect in which younger consumers used prescription drugs more because of increased exposure to drug ads targeting older consumers.

The study focused on DTC ads for drugs used to treat conditions, including depression, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. TV exposure was measured used Nielsen TV ratings for local media markets for consumers above and below age 65. Drug usage was measured by analyzing pharmacy claims for 40 big companies across the country.

Overall, the researchers found that drug utilization did indeed rise among both younger and older consumers in correlation with increased DTC ads.

Beginning in 2006, on average, consumers living in areas with large concentrations of TV households over age 65 bought 6% more drugs than consumers living in areas with low concentrations of TV households over age 65. The researchers found that a 10% increase in DTC drug ad views resulted in a 5.4% increase in prescriptions filled for these drugs.

Moreover, DTC drug advertising also raised adherence to prescription drug therapy. On average a 10% increase in exposure to DTC drug ads boosted adherence to an advertised prescription drug therapy by 1% to 2.5%. This could potentially help lower healthcare costs, as according to the authors poor adherence to prescribed drug regimens raises healthcare costs by anywhere from $100 billion to $289 billion per year.

Significantly, the authors noted that increased DTC drug advertising also boosts prescription rates for non-advertised drugs -- a positive finding, as it suggests that drug ads may spur patients to have conversations with their doctors, who then recommend different medications from the ones advertised.
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