Illustration of a couple watching RX commercial


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Questions about prescription drug advertisements? Ask your provider

Published on Tuesday, June 1, 2021

By: Ruth Cummins

You’re watching, for the fourth time tonight, a commercial touting a breast cancer drug that features smiling women contentedly going about their day-to-day activities.

The narrator explains how effective the drug can be – but then lists a plethora of possible side effects ranging from nausea to blood clots to death.

With all those risks, who would take a chance on the benefits?

That’s a conversation between you and your health care provider, a University of Mississippi Medical Center pharmacist advises.

Portrait of Ha Phan

“At the end of the day, the drug companies have to say the scary side effects,” said Dr. Ha Phan, clinical assistant professor in in the Department of Pharmacy Practice at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy.

Phan is based on the UMMC campus and sees patients in collaboration with providers at the University Physicians Pavilion.

Conversely, drug advertisements aim to convince viewers to ask their provider to prescribe what looks attractive to them. The Federal Drug Administration gives drug manufacturers a lot of leeway in their sales pitches, but does require advertisements to include at least one approved use of the drug in question, the generic name of the drug, and all of the risks of using the drug.

What they’re not required to tell the public is the cost of their drug, whether a generic version of the drug is available, if there’s a similar drug with fewer or different risks, how the drug works and how quickly it works, and if changes in your behavior such as diet and exercise would help your condition anyway.

“It’s so easy to get drawn into these commercials,” Phan said. “I had a patient who saw a commercial and asked me if they could have that medication. These companies pour a lot of money into ads.”

A patient requesting a drug they saw on TV or in a printed publication, however, isn’t all bad. “It’s a good jump-start for a conversation between patient and provider,” Phan said. “You and your health care provider have to know, based on your history, if it’s a safe option.  The best thing you can do as a patient is to keep asking questions.

“I had a patient who wanted to use a weight loss medication, but she had a plethora of chronic diseases. We decided that it would not be the best thing for her to try.”

Even if the side effects happened to just one person, Phan said, drug companies must make public any side effects that come up when a drug is tested during clinical trials. And if someone in a drug trial dies, she said, “they might have died from something else.

“Unless the manufacturer can show the death was not correlated with the drug, you have to report it,” she said. “If you look at the package insert, it will tell you the percentages on how likely something is to occur. If one percent or less were affected, they still have to put the warning on there.

“You might say, ‘Hey! Could I be that person?’”

For some patients, “it’s hard to overcome fears brought on by a litany of harsh side effects,” Phan said. “They don’t give us (providers) the chance to explain it.

“You might only have one slice of the picture, but if you have that conversation with your provider, you can piece together the whole picture to make a decision.”

The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.