75% of US consumers do not believe that doctors’ endorsement of prescription medicines in direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements makes the products appear any more effective, and 72% say such endorsement does not make them seem safer, new research shows.

However, 75% of consumers believe that DTC ads in magazines are “somewhat” or “very” useful in conveying a medicine’s benefits, and 76% hold this view about how such ads communicate its risks, according to Consumer Reaction to DTC Advertising of Prescription Medicines, an annual national survey.

Most consumers are similarly positive about how television DTC ads convey product benefits (69%) and risks (78%), and 56% believe that the advertising is “done responsibly.” Interestingly, negative attitudes towards pharmaceutical companies were found to have no effect on consumer reactions to DTC ads, says the survey, which is conducted by Prevention, Men’s Health and Women’s Health magazines with aid from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communication, and is one of the primary consumer studies informing the FDA’s stance on DTC issues.

53% of US consumers are now seeking prescription drug information on-line, compared with 41% in 2007, and 10% have clicked on a DTC banner ad, up from 5% in 2006, it also reports. “Consumers are firmly rooted in the era of on-line health management as more and more patients embrace tools and trackers such as Google, Yahoo and Revolution Health,” said Cary Silvers, director of consumer insights at Rodale, publisher of the magazines. “Along with the doctor and pharmacist, the on-line component has become the third leg of the stool as consumers learn about drugs. The more consumers know, the more likely they are to take action,” he added.

Over a five-year average, 73% of all consumers who had seen a DTC ad talking to their doctor about a medicine and 25% asked the physician to prescribe it. Of those who just talked about the drug, 25% received a prescription for the advertised product, while of those who specifically asked, 77% received the prescription, the study reveals.

Since the FDA relaxed its rules to permit DTC advertising 10 years ago, drugmakers’ spending in this area increased from $1.1 billion in 1997 to around $4.2 billion in 2005, representing growth of nearly 300%, and rose nearly 14% again in 2006 to reach $4.8 billion.

This rate of rise “dwarfs the 86% spending increase in advertisements to physicians and the 103% spending increase in R&D over the same period,” according to Representative Bart Stupak, chairman of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which conducted a highly critical enquiry into DTC last month.

Dr Nancy Nielsen, president-elect of the American Medical Association (AMA) told the hearing that DTC ads “often portray drugs through rose-coloured glasses by including more information about a drug’s benefits than risks. Imbalances in these ads can diminish patient understanding of certain drug risks, and increase the need for ongoing dialogue between patients and physicians about the benefits and risks of prescription drugs.”

However, Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said that raising awareness of treatment options through DTC advertising “not only informs patients potentially suffering from the disease, it also benefits the entire healthcare system in the US by encouraging patients to seek medical attention that may help them manage their conditions and avoid unneeded hospital stays or surgeries.”

According to Rep Stupak, Congress needs to decide whether the USA should continue to be one of two nations worldwide that allows DTC ads – the other being New Zealand. “Pharmaceutical companies should consider it a privilege to be allowed to air DTC ads in this country. As with all privileges, there comes responsibility, and we should make sure that pharmaceutical companies conduct themselves responsibly,” he said.