Those risk disclosures on drug websites? People don't read them, study says

Consumers don’t always read the risk information on branded drug websites--even though they say they do, according to new eye-tracking research from the University of Tennessee. Risk disclosures are a hot-button issue in pharma marketing, with some critics accusing brands of downplaying the risks and marketers contending that they follow the rules laid out by the FDA.

For the eye-tracking study, two advertising professors used the technique on 29 seasonal allergy sufferers to determine where and how long they looked at a branded drug website, then followed up with interviews about how much the people read and what they remembered. The participants were told the study was looking at how people look for health information online and that the website was for a new prescription allergy drug.

The key finding? Even though 80% of the participants said they read half or more of the website information, they actually read much less than that and had limited recall of the drug’s risks. Further, the study found consumers focused on the drug’s benefit and generally ignored the risks.

That figure wouldn't necessarily hold true for other drugs, though. Mariea Hoy, who fielded the research along with former UT faculty member Abbey Levenshus, said perceived familiarity in the case of the seasonal allergy drug may have played a role in participants ignoring risks they thought they already knew about or didn’t believe would affect them.

“There are so many factors that may be influencing a person when looking at the drug website. Our study found that for individuals who perceived themselves to be familiar with the condition and the drugs that treated it, and subsequently thought ‘it's just an allergy drug,’ they were only looking for benefits and subsequently ignored the risk information,” Hoy said in an email interview with FiercePharma.

When asked about the possibility of typical consumer ad-ignoring behavior as a factor, she said the study didn't investigate it, nor did interviews reveal that people were ignoring risks on branded drug websites out of habit.

Hoy, who recently presented the findings to the FTC and has shared the same information with the FDA, also offered some suggestions on how to get people to read more drug risk information.

Pharma companies should try to identify why people aren’t reading the risks, she said. Are they trying to avoid negative information? Do they think they already know the risks? Do they discount the risks for themselves, with the it-won’t-happen-to-me mindset known as “optimum bias?"

One clear way to get people to pay more attention to risks is to present them first, before the benefits, Hoy said. When there are risks that are unique or novel to the drug class, flag them either verbally or visually to draw more attention.

“The goal is to create a sense of unfamiliarity so that they won't presume they already know the risks simply because they've taken medication for the condition before,” she said.

Critics and government agencies have come down on drugmakers for their risk-disclosure tactics, namely skimping on risks and pumping up benefits.  A recent FDA-commissioned study, for instance, found that cancer drug websites load up on numbers about treatment benefits, but go light on details about their risks. Another flap around Bristol-Myers Squibb cancer drug Opdivo advertising centered around a cancer patient husband who called the pharma's DTC ads “misleading and exploitative,” spurring opposing sides to take up arguments for and against DTC advertising in a pair of JAMA articles.

 - read the UT news release

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