We've all seen them -- those ubiquitous ads for medications to help us with everything from erectile dysfunction to arthritis to cancer.
Well, if they've never motivated you to go out and get a new prescription, you're far from alone.
According to a study in the Annals of Family Medicine, the ads simply don't work.
In turns out, only 2.6 per cent of patients ever ask their doctors about medications they have seen advertised on television or in print. This despite seeing 100 minutes of drug advertising on TV for every minute they see with a doctor, according to the study.
Canadian exposure to the ads may be lower, since they are more restricted here. But we do watch a lot of American TV, and a Canadian Medical Association Journal article in 2003 documented how ads are getting around the law in this country.
"The advertising of prescription drugs aimed directly at the public is prohibited in most countries, including Canada. However, a shift in interpretation of the policy governing this marketing strategy, known as direct-to-consumer advertising, has occurred in Canada, resulting in its partial introduction without public and parliamentary debate."
Commenting on the MSNBC web site, columnist Brian Alexander outlines the longstanding controversy around the ads.
"Drug companies argue that advertising medications provides an important public health service by alerting consumers to potentially undiagnosed, or under treated, disorders. Some doctors and health advocates, on the other hand, argue that ads entice patients to insist on unnecessary or ineffective drugs and to forgo healthy lifestyle changes that might obviate the need for drugs in the first place."
According to the Family Medicine study, based on surveys filed out by family doctors, only 58 of 1,647 patients seen by the doctors asked for a prescription to a specific drug. When the drugs asked for were checked to see if they had been advertised in recent years, the number fell to 43, or 2.6 per cent. Once asked, however, doctors handed out the prescription about half the time, according to the study.
"Although clinicians reported that in most cases of medication inquiry, the medication would not have been their first choice for treating the patient’s condition and that they felt no pressure to prescribe, the medication was nevertheless prescribed more than one-half the time."
Drug companies in the US spend about $500 million a year on advertising -- which critics have blamed in part for the high cost of medications. In these tough times, however, the companies could end up being asked if the ads are worth the cost.