Television Ads for Statins Cause Overdiagnosis and Prescribing

Television Ads for Statins Cause Overdiagnosis and Prescribing

August 6th, 2013 // 12:39 pm @

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Are TV ads for pills that lower cholesterol causing an epidemic of overprescribing? The debate on the extensive ads for prescription drugs is an old one, but some still say that the issue is not resolved. Those in favor of DTC ads say that they inform people who may not be familiar with health risks. Critics say that the ads prompt some people to try to get medicines prescribed without reason.

Statins have been some of the most widely marketed treatments for over 10 years. A new study though is suggesting that there are undesired side effects. Adults who have seen the ads were about 20 percent more likely to get diagnosed with the problem of high cholesterol, and 20 percent more likely to be taking a statin drug.

Here is another interesting fact – the degree of likelihood of having the diagnosis and higher use of the pill was caused mostly by women and men who actually had a lower risk of having a heart problem. At the same time, those who are at a higher risk of heart problems and were exposed to statin ads on TV were not as likely to be taking the pills.

According to the authors of the study, the study does not provide evidence of any favorable association between DTC ads and statin use among people who are at higher risk for future heart problems. The results cause questions to be raised about how much the ads are promoting over-diagnosis and over-treatment for people where the risks could outweigh the benefits.

The study was just published in The Journal of General Internal Medicine. It reviewed how many times American adults in a  group of 100,000 were viewing the DTC ads for stains between the years of 2001-7 on TV. The researchers also assembled data on if adults were reporting a diagnosis of high cholesterol and if they were taking statins in the previous year and what their risk was for heart disease.

The level of risk was a very strong predictor of diagnosis of high cholesterol and the use of statins. Generally, the odds of getting a high diagnosis of cholesterol was about 20% higher for men that had an exposure of 75-150 ads for statins, and 17% higher for those men who had seen 150 ads or more, compared to those with lower exposure to ads.

The results for the use of statins was similar. The chances of using statins were a lot higher for those men who were exposed to 75 to 150 ads – about 21%%, than those who had seen fewer ads.

For women the level of risk was also a strong way to predict the diagnosis of high cholesterol and use of statin drugs. The chances of a higher diagnosis of elevated cholesterol was about 18% higher for women who were exposed to more than 50 statin ads, and it was 20% higher for those women who were exposed to over 100 DTC ads. Again, the associations were usually driven by low risk.

Overall, the authors suggest in their study that the findings indicate that the DTC ads are not always beneficial. How much this is going to matter for brand name cholesterol drugs is not clear – now Lipitor which is sold by Pfizer is going to face competition from generics. But we think that the results are going to continue to cause this issue to be hotly debated.

Of course, some experts disagree with these findings. According to Bob Ehrlich from DTC Perspectives, the fact that the ads are causing more diagnoses should not be a worry. He also noted on his blog that the conclusion that the drugs are being over prescribed is a stretch…the fact that 20% more responded to the ads shows that the ads work.


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