Resolved: I will ignore prescription medication ads on television and in print. I will try not to ask my physician about a specific medication unless I think I have a problem with my current one and/or have attempted to get some reliable information (ads do not count as reliable information) that will help me have an educated conversation with my doctor.
During spring vacation I worked out each morning, a luxury that I do not have when school is in session. While I always listen to my own music or podcasts, I can expect interruptions from 12 televisions, on various channels, broadcasting morning news and manipulative medication advertisements. I’ve learned that most physicians do not mind when people ask questions about medications, but they do mind that these advertisements manipulate their patients. (See policy statement of the American Academy of Family Physicians.)
Not infrequently an older friend or parent talks to me about a medical problem, often bringing up a medication advertisement in the conversation. More often than not, the person thinks out loud, wondering whether to ask a doctor to switch to a new medication. I am not a health professional, but I know a lot about media literacy, so I make it my business to ask if the current medication is causing problems. Usually the answer is “no.” What makes my friends and family decide to ask about a new medication when there is no problem with the one they are taking? Abigail Zuger, M.D. addresses this issue in her March 3, 2008 New York Times Health Section article, Drug Pitchman: Actor, Doctor, or Pfizer’s Option.
Medication advertisements use finely-tuned emotional strategies (idealized families, loving couples, long heartstrings, joyous settings) and actors, grabbing a viewer’s attention and associating the medication with well-being and comfort. These advertising strategies affect our parents who have legitimate medical issues and fears about problems of old age, as well as people like me, a boomer adult child. More than once while exercising I’ve watched an ad, only to find myself wondering about my muscles and heart. (Wait a minute, aren’t my muscles and heart supposed to be working hard during exercise?) The advertisements are that powerful.
Is it a problem to ask questions about medications? Not at all. If a side effect is a concern, call the doctor. If a medication may not be doing its job, by all means, talk to the doctor. But usually there is no need to bring up a medication solely because of an advertisement. And do some homework using reputable references such as the Medline Drug Information site at the National Library of Medicine.
The best gift that we can give to our aging parents, our older friends, and to ourselves is the understanding about the ways these advertisements manipulate viewers and our health — they are sales pitches, after all (not all that different from automobile ads). We can all learn how to ignore them.
Reliable Sources of Information on Medications
- PDR Health (an arm of the professional medical site but designed for consumers)
- Mayo Clinic Drug Reference
- My post about the list of medication questions from Caregiver Alliance
- A document that I made for my parents with questions color-coded for their physician or pharmacist.