I’ve always been intrigued by those ads for prescription drugs that urge us to “talk to your doctor” about whatever miracle pill big pharma is peddling. I’m a little puzzled because I’m not a doctor. So why would I know whether pharmaceuticals are “right for me”? Why does the doctor need my input?
It makes no sense to me; prescription drugs require a physician’s prescription for a reason: as a society, we have decided that consumers are not in a position to diagnose themselves and figure out the best treatment. That’s why it takes someone who went to medical school (and probably residency), took exams, and got licensed by the state to make the call.
With this in mind, and knowing that most drug companies are for-profit enterprises, I think that the ads exist primarily to convince you to pressure your doctor for a prescription, and thereby increase drug sales.
So that’s why I want to talk about this from a personal finance perspective. While I’m certainly not qualified to do so from a medical point of view, I can explore how “talking to your doctor” about some pharmaceutical in an ad can wind up costing you extra money.
Case Study: The Battle of the Sleep Aids
Let’s say that, like me, you’re something of an insomniac. One of the available treatments is prescription sleep aids, of which there are at least three major ones: Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata. All three are described as hypnotics by Drugs.com. However, they don’t have the same cost.
Take a look at these two price comparisons. For the first, I simply looked up a ready-made comparison on a website called Iodine. There, the cheapest is Ambien, followed by Sonata, followed by Lunesta:
For the second, I looked up the prices individually on rxpricequotes.com, for a five-day regimen of the lowest dose available, at pharmacies here in Miami:
The results are a bit more mixed. If you take the generic versions of the pharmaceuticals, the results are the same: Ambien is the cheapest and Lunesta the most expensive. However, if you take the brand-name pills, Sonata is the cheapest while Ambien is the most expensive.
So Should You Take the Cheapest?
How would I know? I’m not a doctor. However, if you go by this ad for Lunesta, you should “ask your doctor if Lunesta is right for you”:
And therein lies the rub: why would I, an untrained layman, be asking my doctor about prescription drugs that I know nothing about? I’d venture to say it’s all a ploy to get me to pressure my doctor to prescribe what may be a drug that’s more expensive than what I need (which may be $0, because I may not need any drugs at all).
This is not just my inane speculation, as USA Today wrote that “the aim of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising [is] getting patients or their family members to remember a drug’s name and ask by name for a prescription”.
This is making people take more expensive drugs than necessary, as doctors from the American Medical Association found, expressing “…concerns that a growing proliferation of ads is driving demand for expensive treatments despite the clinical effectiveness of less costly alternatives”.
Summing It Up
From a personal finance viewpoint, I think it makes no sense to be “asking your doctor” about expensive prescription drugs advertised on TV. That’s not to say that you should not question doctors; on the contrary, I think it’s a good idea to ask lots of questions and find out all you can. However, I’m not convinced that, solely on the basis of a TV ad, I should be asking my doctor whether pharmaceuticals are “right for me”.
Note: This post was restored from a backup because I installed a WordPress plugin that broke the site. Unfortunately, the comments were lost because the backup was of the post when it was in draft form. I apologize for the inconvenience.