Ask Your Doctor TV Ads

March 29, 2017

Few issues have proven more contentious in the U.S. political debate than health care. Because of a quirk of history, America alone relies on employers to arrange deals and pay for a significant share of the health care bill. The fault lines in the health care debate are over breadth of coverage, its cost, the¬†proper role of government at the federal and state levels, the patient’s freedom of choice, and how best to encourage¬†competition in a way that optimizes both patient care and public welfare.

Broad differences exist among elected politicians over whether the health care system was improved by the Affordable Care Act, and a parallel argument concerns whether the health care system is fine or broken. A symptom of the latter is the proliferation of TV commercials hawking various new medications. Back in the day even when a wide range of controlled medications existed, no such ads other than an occasional promotion of an over-the-counter antacid like Alka- Seltzer could be seen. In prime time these days, ask your doctor marketing ploys seemingly represent half or more of all the advertisements.

Ask your doctor commercials are troubling from several respects. First, they always contain a lengthy list of creepy side-effects invariably including death, which sends the implicit message that the whole lot of medicines dangled before the public on TV are in fact very dangerous drugs. Several of these medicines moreover follow a predictable¬†pattern, starting with the ad touting the medicine followed by a disclaimer that it can do more harm than good in certain cases. Then after about two years or so, a second ad about the same drug gets aired, only this time from a legal firm, offering its services to people made sicker by the drug’s use.

The marketing pitch rightfully should be directed at credentialed doctors, not their patients. One goes to a doctor to seek expert opinion about one’s health and to learn, if there is a problem, the most effective yet safe way to treat it. The presumption in ask your doctor ads is that the professional knows absolutely nothing about your condition and needs to be educated by you, the patient, not the other way around, about the best options for treatment. Freedom of choice shouldn’t mean that every doctor seen is a first-time visit.

By putting the cart before the horse in doctor-patient relationships, ask your doctor ads tear down general confidence in the health care system from the competence of doctors to the cost effectiveness of care to how doctor-patient connections are made and used and, ultimately, to uncredentialed lawmakers who decide the rules of the game. The ads bring visible evidence into living rooms all around America that things are terribly amiss in how the country handles the basic economic decisions of allocation, distribution and production of health care. It should not surprise people that Americans spend a much greater percentage of GDP on health care yet achieve shorter longevity and less general utility than numerous other countries manage to enjoy.

Copyright 2017, Larry Greenberg. All rights reserved. No secondary distribution without express permission.

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