Prescription Drugs:

Little Is Known About the Effects of Direct-to-Consumer Advertising

PEMD-91-19: Published: Jul 9, 1991. Publicly Released: Aug 12, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of prescription drugs, focusing on: (1) its potential benefits or detriments; (2) consumer and physician attitudes toward DTCA and the confidence placed in this knowledge; and (3) existing research gaps regarding DTCA.

GAO found that: (1) the many benefits cited as possible effects of DTCA included consumer education, price reduction, and patient involvement in health care, and the detriments included physician shopping, increased costs, and inadequate risk information; (2) the findings from the few studies conducted to determine the possible effects of DTCA did not apply to all types of advertising or to all consumers; (3) the few research studies of physicians' and consumers' opinions of DTCA were limited since the studies did not systematically address the advertising and media differences, and sampling designs were flawed; (4) as a result of the limitations, those studies did not measure the extent to which opinions about DTCA were positive or negative or short-term changes in those opinions; (5) studies indicated that, generally, physicians opposed DTCA because they believed that it would undermine the physician-patient relationship with the extent of their opposition depending on the type of DTCA, the media, and the content; (6) since most consumers were unaware of DTCA, they based their opinions about it on other experiences, such as other products' advertisements; (7) in general, consumers supported DTCA because they believed that it would provide them with information; (8) there was limited information regarding whether DTCA effects differed by media or content; and (9) such gaps as the effect of widespread advertising on drug prices may not be possible to study before the actual widespread implementation of DTCA.