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Medical advertising now legitimate and accepted, but some concerns remain

Marketing evolution

Advertising by doctors and other health providers used to be illegal. A court ruling struck that down as unconstitutional, and now it may be hard to remember why this was once considered such a bad thing.

Although advertising by physicians is legitimate and accepted, probably less than 25% of physicians advertise, says Dr. W. “Joe” Burnett, director of the State Board of Medical Licensure, which regulates physician advertising in Mississippi. He said that while medical advertisements in Mississippi aren’t perfect, there have been few violations of the law.

“There are certainly things that could be done better,” Burnett said. “The only specifics in the regulations are that the advertisement has to be truthful. If, for example, you hold yourself out to be more certified than you are, that is not truthful. One circumstance we have run into that has required intervention was a physician who advertised in the Yellow Pages as being part of Blue Cross Network when, indeed, he was not.”

A bill was introduced in the Legislature this year to require physicians and other medical professions to identify their degrees and certificates in advertising. Burnett believes that would have provided better information for consumers. But the bill died.

Burnett said he doesn’t see any benefits to consumers from medical advertisement, including advertisements for prescription drugs. “It’s more marketing than education,” he said.

Karen Evers, director of communications for the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA), said there have been concerns raised about medical advertising.

“MSMA members are concerned that the public gets clear information from advertisements,” Evers said. “That’s why we sought legislation this year that would require all licensed health care professionals to prominently and clearly include the specific type of license held in all advertisements.

“This would apply to M.D.s, D.O.s, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, chiropractors, podiatrists, optometrists, etc. The public is entitled to clear information on the level of training and expertise to expect from their care givers.”

MSMA president W. Briggs Hopson Jr., M.D., said the biggest problem with physician advertising is people who claim to be doctors but don’t indicate if they are an M.D., a D.O. or a Ph.D. “A lot of people just put ‘Dr.’ by their name,” he said. “You should put down what your degree is so the people who read the advertising know what your education is.”

Regarding the current trend towards heavy advertising for prescription drugs, Hopson said patients are going to doctors and asking by drugs by their brand name. While sometimes that is the drug needed, many times another brand may be less expensive and do just as well.

“I feel that one of the reasons you go to a physician is to ask for his advice,” Hopson said. “I believe physicians can tell patients which drugs are best, and if a generic drug is just as good as the brand name they asked for. But if a patient insists and there is no deleterious effect, then the physician can prescribe what the patient has asked for. But certain plans will only pay for certain drugs, and I hope patients realize that when they ask for “X” brand name. Most of the time the generic drug is just as good.”

While physician drug advertising can be helpful for letting people know that there are drugs to treat their ailment, Hopson recommends placing trust in the physicians who will give patients the best advice possible.

The costs of prescriptions are increasing faster than other aspects of health care. Part of that is due to the amount of money spent on research. Hopson said there are a lot more drugs available now than 10 years ago to treat various conditions.

“More research causes costs to rise, but it also improves health care,” Hopson said. “The bad part is sometimes people don’t have money to pay for the drugs they need. Sometimes they will buy only part of a dose. That is something we are starting to see.”

Another concern about medical advertising and treatment is “scope of practice.” In some areas of the state eye clinics advertise facial wrinkle treatments — normally a procedure that would be associated with dermatology.

“Scope of practice is an issue MSMA is concerned about,” Evers said. “What is in the best interest of patients is an encounter that comes with in-depth knowledge of all of the aspects of medicine to properly assess, diagnose and treat. In-depth knowledge and training in one plane only, say pharmacology, or superficial surgery or laser technique, is as much a potential for disaster as it is a potential for adequacy. And very often it is much more than just a potential. You end up with the ultimate criterion: ‘What is in the best interest of the patient?’ It would seem that what is best is the best most comprehensive training available and accessible in the area at any given time.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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