'Bad drug' lawsuit ads hurt doc-patient relationships and need regulation, says industry coalition

Wooden gavel over small pile of multi-colored pills on dark background.
A newly formed coalition of national physician and patient advocacy groups is calling for a closer look at lawyers' drug lawsuit TV ads. (Getty Images/AVNphotolab)

“Drug warning!” blares the voice from a late-night TV ad. “Have you or a loved one been injured by XYZ drug? You may be entitled to substantial compensation!”

Sound familiar? Trial lawyer “bad drug” ads have proliferated for years, but one newly formed organization is pushing back. The Partnership to Protect Patient Health is a coalition of national physician and patient advocacy groups that believe the lawsuit advertising needs to be addressed as a healthcare issue that can disrupt physician-patient relationships.

The documented problem, confirmed by a recent survey by the coalition, is that about a quarter of patients report discontinuing their prescribed drugs without consulting their doctor after viewing the fearmongering ads. The most recent data from the alliance's survey of 500 healthcare providers and 800 patients also found that 58% of HCPs said they’ve had patients who stopped taking their prescribed drugs after viewing drug-injury lawsuit ads. Previous research, including data from the FDA, found that unnecessary complications and even deaths came as a result. The American Medical Association sanctioned the ads in 2016 and voted to advocate for a requirement that ads contain “appropriate and conspicuous warnings” to not discontinue drugs without consulting a doctor.

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The problematic advertising has traditionally been framed as tort reform, but the alliance would like to see it recast as a healthcare issue, said Chase Martin, coalition manager for the Partnership to Protect Patient Health.

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“Good government, especially in the healthcare space, really does focus on protecting the physician-patient relationship and we’re very much in favor of that,” he said. “We’re advocating for responsible advertising, which reinforces the need to consult your physician before making any changes.”

David Charles, M.D. and chairman of the Alliance for Patient Access which is a steering committee member of the coalition, said in a statement: “It is alarming that these commercials frighten some patients into making serious treatment decisions without talking to their physicians. This drives a wedge in the patient-physician relationship and jeopardizes patients’ safety, especially if they’re taking a lifesaving medication. Regulators must take steps to review and rein in the claims made in these ads to ensure they don’t endanger patient health and undermine informed medical decision-making.”

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The group plans to target legislators at the state level, where advertising enforcement is regulated and enforced by state attorneys general. At the federal level, the FTC regulates TV ads, and Martin said the group is also pursuing discussions with members of Congress. The alliance will run its survey again next year to find out what, if any, changes have occurred.

But it's not stopping there. “We’re not just interested in surveys. We want to identify states where we think we can engage with policymakers to potentially submit legislation or have conversations with attorneys general offices to require a change of these irresponsible practices,” Martin added.

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