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By Michael Ybarra

Michael Ybarra, MD MedStar Georgetown University HospitalIn November, the American Medical Association (AMA) adopted a new policy supporting a ban on direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising. While only Congress can officially enact such a ban, the AMA policy, which was based on the false notion that DTC is playing a direct role in the price of new medicines and devices, has re-opened an important conversation on this topic.

Unfortunately, the role DTC advertisements play in educating patients often gets excluded from these discussions. DTC ads have proven to help patients become more involved in their health care by informing them about new medicines they haven’t heard about from their doctors, raising awareness of diseases, removing stigma from certain conditions, and encouraging discussions with their health care providers.

In fact, a 2012 survey of patients by Prevention Magazine found that 71 percent of people agree that DTC advertisements “allow people to be more involved with their health care” and 75 percent believe that DTC ads are useful because they “tell people about new treatments.”

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These findings are similar to a previous survey by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which concluded that “[b]y and large, DTC advertising seems to increase [patients’] awareness of conditions and treatments, motivate questions for the healthcare provider, and help patients ask better questions.”

It should also be noted that just because a patient sees a DTC advertisement, it doesn’t mean he or she will be prescribed that medicine. Prevention’s survey found that among those who discussed a specific medicine that was advertised with their physician, only 20 percent received the prescription of the advertised medicine. Further, the FDA survey found that the main effect of DTC advertising is that it caused people to seek care for a condition they hadn’t previously discussed with a physician. This should be encouraged. It is, of course, our job as physicians to address patient concerns and work with them to make the most appropriate treatment decisions.

PhRMA’s member companies are committed to following our DTC principles and designing their advertising to provide scientifically accurate information to help patients better understand their health care and treatment options.

In my experience, patients seek care after getting information from a myriad of sources. Whether it is from the Internet, a family member, or an advertisement for a doctor, hospital, or drug, it’s not a bad thing for patients to bring questions to the doctor’s office. Whatever reason patients seek care, we should encourage these conversations to take place so that patients are taking an active role in their health and health care.

Michael Ybarra, M.D., is senior director of Alliance Development at PhRMA, where he leads outreach to provider, multicultural, and LGBT organizations. He is also a Board-certified emergency physician, working at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.