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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 20490

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Hailstone B
Doctors 'misled' by advertising
The Advertiser 1991 Jun 1810

Full text:

Doctors often prescribed inappropriate drugs for patients because they were misled lead by drug company advertising, a Federal parliamentary inquiry was told in Adelaide yesterday.

Dr Peter Mansfield, 32, a South Australian general practitioner who is the founder of a worldwide organisation called the Medical Lobby for Appropriate Marketing, said drug company promotion often failed to give prominence to the side effects of some drugs.

The complications were listed in the product literature but they were often not well displayed in the glossy ads which gave a different overall impression from the one the doctor ought to have, he said.

In a submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into the prescription and supply of drugs, Dr Mansfield said it was common to find advertising by drug companies which was misleading and contained unsubstantiated claims.

He quoted an article in the British medical journal Lancet which he co-authored with Professor Peter McDonald, of Flinders Medical Centre, which found that up to 31 per cent of advertisements printed in medical publications included misleading or unsubstantiated information.

Dr Mansfield said the Department of Health and Community Services had ceased previous minimal regulation of prescription drug advertising, the Australian Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association was avoiding even making judgements on breaches of its advertising code and the Trade Practices Commission had not been able to enforce the Trade Practices Act in regard to prescription drug advertising.

“Health professionals are not able to protect themselves from misleading advertising”, he said.

This was despite the fact that studies in the United Kingdom and United States had shown that commercial sources of information were a more powerful influence upon prescribing than scientific sources and that misleading advertising was effective.

Apart from advertising, drug companies employed visiting representatives to call on and befriend doctors and influence their prescribing patterns with spoken messages that were not subject to any scrutiny, he said.

Voluntary regulation of the drug advertising code was not yet effective but could be successful if backed up by powerful external supervision.

Dr Mansfield told the committee an ideal regulatory system would include an acceptable code of conduct, a sensitive monitory system, thorough investigation of complaints, unbiased judges, effective sanctions and adequate repair of damage caused by breaches of the code.

He said MLAM had 700 members throughout the world, 250 in Australia (80 in SA) and each of the doctors paid a $35-a-year subscription for a newsletter which questioned drug company claims and urged subscribers to write to pharmaceutical companies voicing their concerns.

Promotion of some drugs had been withdrawn or changed as a result of correspondence from MLAM, Dr Mansfield said.

Mrs Jan Watkinson, for the South Australian Council on the Ageing, said drug trials were not always conducted on older people and doctors may not always be aware of potential problems that might arise when prescribing for this age group.

She also suggested elderly patients should have their own booklet in which to list their medication, to avoid confusion about prescribed drug taking.


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Cases of wilful misrepresentation are a rarity in medical advertising. For every advertisement in which nonexistent doctors are called on to testify or deliberately irrelevant references are bunched up in [fine print], you will find a hundred or more whose greatest offenses are unquestioning enthusiasm and the skill to communicate it.

The best defence the physician can muster against this kind of advertising is a healthy skepticism and a willingness, not always apparent in the past, to do his homework. He must cultivate a flair for spotting the logical loophole, the invalid clinical trial, the unreliable or meaningless testimonial, the unneeded improvement and the unlikely claim. Above all, he must develop greater resistance to the lure of the fashionable and the new.
- Pierre R. Garai (advertising executive) 1963