Yes, DTC Presents Problems, But Pluses Can Surprise You

What would this country be if we didn't have something to complain about? After all, America was born out of a difference of opinion, so it stands to reason that finding negativity in something and beating it to death has become something of a national sport.

Just look at the way the managed care industry gets slapped around like a hockey puck by the popular press and opportunistic politicians. Yes, the system has its faults — many of them. But it wasn't long ago that the same media fawned over those same politicians who decried runaway health care costs and pitied Americans who shelled a lot more out of pocket for their care than they do now. Those days seem forgotten.

So it was something of a pleasant surprise when we learned that direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs — a favorite punching bag of the managed care industry — actually has a positive side for managed care companies and physicians. It's not necessarily the “educational” aspect of some ads, though the handful of those that do motivate people to see physicians for unknown or long-neglected conditions is a plus for everyone. No, what's particularly refreshing is that DTC advertising presents health plans and physicians with a few little-talked-about opportunities to mesh objectives with pharmaceutical companies in the name of improving outcomes. Senior Editor Mike Dalzell explains in his cover story.

Of course, not all DTC advertising is public-spirited. One health plan executive we spoke with put it this way: “To mindlessly drive unmitigated demand for drugs makes about as much sense as a two-headed man. What are we doing here?”

He's right, and yet that presents health plans with another opportunity: to help consumers distinguish need from want — i.e., restore consumerism in health care. It won't happen as long as people are shielded from the cost of care. With education, patients who have become accustomed to “near-free” pharmaceutical therapy might be more judicious in their resource use.