UPDATED: FDA aims to train docs to spot misleading drug ads--and report them

As the feds continue to crack down on pharma marketing infractions and budget-minded states deploy their own reps to bring pharma promos down to earth, the FDA has upped its own stake in making sure advertisers play by the rules. The agency has launched an e-learning course aimed at teaching healthcare providers how to spot drug ads and promo materials that may be untruthful or misleading--and how to report them to the FDA.

The course, launched with MedScape, uses case studies to help students "become discerning readers of drug promotional information," wrote Thomas Abrams, director of the FDA's Office of Prescription Drug Promotion, on the blog FDA Voice. While anyone can take the course for a certificate of completion, the agency designed it for healthcare providers with hopes that schools that train them "would integrate the course into the general curriculum and utilize the case studies for in-class learning," an FDA spokesperson told FiercePharma.The course is part of Bad Ad, a program the agency designed in 2010 to educate doctors about their role in ensuring advertising stays pure. 

"Because students are actively engaged in forming clinical practice habits that may last throughout their careers, reaching them now with Bad Ad information could have a strong impact on how they view prescription drug promotion," Abrams wrote.

Back when the FDA was rolling out the Bad Ad program, the agency drew fire from marketing execs for encouraging physicians and other providers to report false advertising--and for allowing them to do so anonymously. They accused the agency of deputizing doctors rather than hiring the staff necessary to review advertising internally.

But many states, too, have seen the need to combat misleading promo materials, and they've done so through "academic detailing," where physicians, pharmacists, nurses and other trained medical reps spread info about prescription drugs. The goal is to improve quality of care while also pinching pennies. Educating prescribers about treatment options--not just the new, expensive ones--could help them make informed decisions that could, in turn, bring down drug spending.

The recent slew of pharma marketing settlements with the Department of Justice goes to show that there's room for improvement when it comes to curbing dishonest advertising. Over the past decade, drugmakers have agreed to pay close to $14 billion in penance for off-label and safety-related claims. But for some companies, those settlements haven't deterred repeat misbehavior. Pfizer ($PFE), for one, has wrapped two marketing settlements for north of $400 million: one in 2004 totaling $430 million for promotions of seizure drug Neurotonin, and another in 2009 worth $2.3 billion--including a record-setting $1.3 billion in criminal penalties--over Bextra, Geodon, Zyvox and Lyrica.

- read the FDA Voice blog post
- learn more about academic detailing

Special Report: Pharma's Top 11 Marketing Settlements

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the FDA.