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Lawmakers: direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs are a problem

Friday, July 31st, 2009

As I’ve written before, I am troubled by direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs. Only a doctor who knows your medical history and has done and interpreted any necessary tests can determine whether you need a prescription drug and which one you should be taking.

Now, a few lawmakers have proposed bills that would help limit this practice. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times article about the legislative proposals:

“For some legislators and consumer advocates, the ads are a daily reminder of a health care system run amok. Critics contend that drug ads are intended to prompt people to diagnose themselves with chronic quality-of-life problems like insomnia or restless leg syndrome; lead people to pressure their doctors for prescriptions for expensive brand-name drugs to treat these conditions; and steer people away from cheaper generic pills.

“And, critics say, such ads may overstate benefits and understate risks of drugs, or by drumming up audiences for the latest pills at a time when the side effects of such drugs may not yet be fully known.”

I agree with all the above and hope that Congress will act. One suggested bill would deny pharmaceutical companies a tax break for the cost of creating and running such ads. That sounds like a good start. The rest of us shouldn’t subsidize these direct-to-consumer ads through our tax dollars.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Danish study links hormone replacement therapy to ovarian cancer. Should you worry?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

In the news today is a Danish study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), that indicates there may be an increased risk of ovarian cancer among users of hormone replacement therapy.

While this may sound like scary new information, it’s not actually news. Thirteen years ago, for my masters degree in public health, I wrote my final epidemiology paper on the link between hormone therapy and ovarian cancer.

Other studies link hormone replacement therapy, especially estrogen alone rather than estrogen plus progesterone, to breast cancer and endometrial cancer.

After reviewing the available information, you and your doctor may still decide that estrogen’s benefits outweigh any risk. Or you may want to try a different tactic to alleviate menopausal symptoms. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, other treatment options, including SSRIs and blood pressure medications, may work as well and cause fewer concerns.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH

Those scary “ask your doctor” commercials

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

You know the ones. The narrator tells you that, if such and such happens to you, say, you get two eyelashes caught in your eye per week, you may have eyelash-balding disease (okay, I’m making this up but, you know what I mean). Often, the commercial is about some disease you’ve never heard of before. Or maybe, it tells you about a new medicine for a health concern you already have.

Should you “ask your doctor” to write a prescription for the “medicine-of-the-month”?

Maybe a few other questions should be answered first. Has the narrator of the commercial examined you? Factored in whether the trade-off between symptomatic relief and side-effects is worth it? Compared it to your current prescription and determined, based on your health history, that this is a superior choice?

Well, of course not. The narrator is an actor, paid to convincingly read a script that is meant to do one thing only: sell stuff.

So, think twice before responding to direct-to-consumer advertising about prescription medications. When it comes to marketing these new drugs, the “consumer” should be the physician, who has knowledge of your health history and needs, as well as specialized training and understanding about the potential benefits and risks of drugs. The drug company has a vested interest in selling you their product. And remember that we’ve seen significant consequences with former “medicines-of-the-month,” such as Vioxx or Phen-fen.

If you’re concerned about a symptom, or if your current medication isn’t working as well as you’d hoped, make an appointment with your doctor. Ask your doctor about side-effects including how a medicine interacts with other prescriptions or nutritional supplements you are taking or if your medical history precludes its use.

Remember, you can’t diagnose yourself based on a commercial or an article in a magazine (or a blog post, even one written by a doctor).

So, go ahead, ask your doctor. Just be sure to ask the right questions. Don’t simply ask for a prescription based on what you saw on TV.

– Yvonne S. Thornton, MD, MPH