Physician Feedback on DTC Ads Highlights Frustrations, and Opportunities
By Katheryn Hewitt

There has always been a healthy tension between critics and proponents of direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads. And while DTC ads serve an important role in educating and building awareness amongst patients, marketers need to be aware of potential blind spots in what otherwise seems like a tried-and-true marketing strategy.

A tracking survey by InCrowd of 319 physicians in a variety of specialties between June and December 2016 finds frustration with DTC ads, as well as opportunities for healthcare marketers to improve DTC ads, and the resulting clinic experience for doctors and patients.

Since the advent of DTC ads in the 1980s, and with more relaxed regulations in 1997, pharma companies have enjoyed increased access to patients and consumers to talk about their drugs and devices.

In 2015 alone, the pharma industry spent $5.4 billion on DTC ads, according to Kantar Media. That same year, Americans spent nearly $457 billion on prescription drugs.

The InCrowd survey showed that over the last five years physicians noted patients are asking three times as many questions because of DTC ads, from an average of 1 a week to 3 questions a week.

Physicians also report that patient questions are often the result of a lack of understanding, and that most patients walk into doctors’ offices confused.

Nearly 87% of physicians observed some level of confusion with the ads:

  • 43% said “some of my patients” can interpret/understand these ads
  • 42% said “few of my patients” can
  • 3% said “none of my patients” can

(Only 13% of physicians said “most of my patients” can interpret/understand these ads.)

Respondents reported that even when patients understand what the medication is for, they are often confused or are apt to misinterpret information related to side effects.

Many physicians also reported feeling uncomfortable with how some drug information is communicated to patients and feel it isn’t always effective. Said one neurologist from California with 26 years in practice, “Most will understand what the drug is for, may not understand cost effectiveness, nor side effect potential and whether or not the risks justify the benefits. But, I think that is the goal of the advertisement..simply to induce patients to just ask about or for the drug.”

The crux of the disconnect between the ads and their being more useful to both patients and prescribers seems to be the mention of side effects. The number of side effects and the equal weight given to them in these ads seem to have negative implications in getting accurate, helpful information to those who need it. “Most of the medications are important and necessary; the side effects info is mostly confusing and inappropriate,” reported one cardiologist from Colorado with 21 years in practice.

Our Crowd also spoke to what they think could be changed or updated in these ads to resolve some of the confusion that exists. Almost half of physicians surveyed said there was an opportunity to simplify the message on conditions, treatments, and potential side effects of medications.

Some 35% suggested an outright ban. The remainder of physicians surveyed provided constructive feedback to the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps with the goal of having better conversations during their in-visit interactions and time with patients.

A large number, 31%, recommended additional patient education.

All this suggests that even with successful marketing formulas, there are always additional, nuanced insights that can help marketers improve their strategy and efficacy.

DTC pharma ads are a clear winner for the industry. Tracking doctor perceptions over time, especially around the patient education programs they recommend, will give healthcare marketers additional, valuable insights on how to improve a lynchpin of their marketing strategy for increased patient and physician benefit, and for greater market share.

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