Prior to the 1980s, health-care advertising was barely noticeable. The bulk of the products advertised on television or in magazines were over-the-counter drugs. Prescription medicines were never advertised. In fact, most drug companies viewed doctors as their customers for prescription medication because patients could get those drugs only if their doctor wrote a prescription. They hired thousands of sales reps who pushed new, and usually the most expensive medicines directly to doctors.

It was unheard of for a doctor to advertise. And the same for hospitals. The medical establishment had created a club-like arrangement where the only way in was through your doctor. A patient was at the mercy of their doctor to admit them to the appropriate hospital for their needs or write the most effective prescription for their condition. That left patients in the dark. Was that hospital the best one? Was that drug the most effective or simply the newest?

Things changed in the 1980s. Consumer advocacy groups demanded health-care transparency. There were too many unfilled hospital beds, causing many hospitals to shut down and leaving the rest in a fight for patients. Pharmaceutical companies realized that exposing new drugs to patients via advertising was a way to create demand for that product. And many doctors were forming large group practices in their communities and needed to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Advertising was clearly the answer. Today, we see the results of that dramatic shift. There are scores of slick prescription drug ads on television and streaming services. Hospitals pour tens of thousands of dollars into television and print ads, designed to steer you to that hospital and their affiliated doctors.

I’m not opposed to health-care advertising, but having dealt with this issue for more than 40 years, I have some tips on how to view and use these advertisements.

Drug ads. Drug ads are the most regulated form of medical advertising. They cannot make unsubstantiated claims and must also note the most common side effects. TV ads must include a reference to a printed, more detailed description of the drug in at least one magazine.

As regulated as they are, these ads are focused on getting you to ask your doctor about the advertised drug. These drugs are generally the newest and most expensive in their category. Some of these medicines cost tens of thousands of dollars per dosage. It’s good to ask your doctor about the drug you see advertised, but it’s also important to ask if there are less expensive drugs or older drugs that give the same results. New drugs are not necessarily the most effective for your situation, and most new drugs are often no better than older products.

Hospital and doctor ads. Hospital ads are generally unregulated. And while hospitals pour thousands of dollars into advertising, their ads offer little in the way of data you can use to make a decision about using that hospital. For example, simply saying that they have a large cancer or heart program tells you nothing about the success rates of operations, how often they are treating patients with similar conditions like yours or their rate of hospital-acquired infections. Choosing a hospital or doctor affiliated with a particular hospital is a complex decision that can have a dramatic impact on the success of the care you will receive. Doing your own research on the best hospitals and doctors for your condition is far more productive than any of the advertising currently being aired or printed. Health-care advertising can be useful in helping you understand options you never knew were available. But remember, the bottom line for those advertising is their bottom line!

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