There is no denying that media influences the way we think. Most of what we do is influenced by advertising; from the type of clothes we buy to the food we eat. Medical care is not immune to this. Think about how many commercials you see daily for one prescription drug or another. It may surprise you that there are only 2 countries in the WORLD which allow pharmaceutical companies to directly market to consumers. These are the United States and New Zealand. This is a very controversial topic, with the pharmaceutical industry stating that it informs consumers about healthcare options, while opponents claim that it leads to higher healthcare costs and potentially unnecessary treatment. This is an ongoing debate, which has even been discussed in Congress. The issue has yet to be settled.
Most direct to consumer advertising is obvious. You pick up a magazine or watch a commercial and there is the advertisement for the product. But, what about non-traditional advertising? Product placement in movies and television shows is a subtle, but effective, means of influencing the way we think. The next time you watch a movie or television show, pay attention to what the actors are eating, drinking, wearing, driving, etc. Those companies likely paid a lot of money to have their products prominently featured and are hoping to make a return on their investment by influencing your habits. Another way in which we are influenced is through the content of the television programs we watch. Once again, medicine is not immune to this. There are numerous medical shows on television, and even a dedicated medical channel (Discovery Health).
There was an article recently published in the British Medical Journal (The British equivalent to the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine) analyzing the recommendations made by two of the most popular medical talk shows currently airing, The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors. (BMJ 2014; 349: g 7346). The goal of the authors was to assess the quality and efficacy of the recommendations made by the programs in reference to available scientific evidence, safety/risks, cost, and potential conflict of interest. They did this by randomly sampling 80 episodes from each show and comparing the recommendations made during each show against established medical research and reference databases. The study concluded: “Recommendations made on the medical talk shows often lack adequate information on specific benefits or the magnitude of the effects of these benefits. Approximately half of the recommendations have either no evidence or are contradicted by the best available evidence. Potential conflicts of interest are rarely disclosed. The public should be skeptical about recommendations made on medical talk shows.” In contrast, the authors state that 78% of medical interventions in a ‘real world’ medical practice have evidence supporting their efficacy and/or safety.
So, the take home point is that deliberate marketing and potentially misleading information surrounds us each and every day. This includes information which may skew your thoughts regarding medical care. Although seemingly obvious, the best thing to do is discuss any questions, concerns, or conditions you may have with your physician, rather than deferring to the internet or a popular television program.
- Tippett E. Medical Advice from Lawyers: A Content Analysis of Advertising for Drug Injury Lawsuits. Am J Law Med. 2015;41(1):7-48. PubMed PMID: 26237982