By Dr. Anthony Policastro

It is difficult to turn on your television without seeing an ad for some medication that does wondrous things. You might ask yourself just how wondrous these medications really are.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looked at that question earlier this year. The first thing they looked at was the frequency of the ads. Between 1997 and 2016 these television ads increased by about 500 percent.

Of all the money that drug manufacturers spend on advertising to the public, about 2/3 of that money goes to television ads.

It should come as no surprise that most of the medications advertised are high cost drugs. The pharmaceutical companies are only going to spend money on advertising if they can make money from the sales of the medications. 

Relatively few of these medications were generic drugs. Relatively few of these medications were low cost alternatives to more expensive drugs.

Of the top 81 drugs being advertised almost a third (32.1 percent) were for immunological related drugs. An additional 16 percent were gastrointestinal in nature. In third place were neurologic drugs at 13.6 percent. Added together these three categories make up over 60 percent of drugs being advertised.

You might think from the ads that these medications all were of very high therapeutic value. You might think that they represented top of the line medications. You would be correct for about 30 percent of the drugs advertised.

The other 70 percent represented little benefit over drugs already on the market. This is actually logical. If you know that the drug you are producing is of little additional benefit over what is already out there, you have to push it harder. That is the best way to make a profit on it.

Pharmaceutical companies need to have patients tell their physician to prescribe what they saw on television. If they do not do that, then the physician will prescribe a cheaper drug that is just as effective.

The company cares more about how much money it makes than it does about being truthful in their ads.

In addition, you might notice that the ads focus on certain demographics. They know which groups of people watch certain shows. They know what the common medical problems that group has. Therefore, they know which shows to provide their advertisements to.

Physicians are certainly besieged by drug company representatives as well. However, they are not as likely to be asked to prescribe those medications advertised on television. The reason is simple. They know that most of them offer little advantage over what they are already prescribing. They know their patients best. They have more of an interest in the health of their patients. The drug companies have more of an interest in the wallets of their patients.

The best thing to do when you see one of these ads on television is to grab the remote and fast forward to something more useful.