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Let's Face It: Medicine is Business

Drug Ads Should Make Journals Free for Us

In 1999, Louis Constan, MD wrote an article called, “Doctor, Tell Me About This New Drug” within the humor category of The Journal of Family Practice. It’s now almost 7 years later, and many of what Dr. Constan highlighted have become reality. I will share one of my personal favorites to start:

Magazines have so many drug ads in them that they should stop charging us for subscription fees.

I understand the need for advertising. Money from ads help publications stay afloat. Even virtual information resources like this one costs something, so I’m not going to criticize magazines for displaying ads. On the other hand, the sheer amount of ads that some of these magazines have is becoming ridiculous – not only in professional (medical or industry) magazines – but in consumer magazines.

When I was a professional road warrior (translation: consultant), I’d haul along my piled-up reading materials. I would use the “down-time” (translation: waiting for my plane to arrive) I had to catch up on reading. One day, while I was waiting at the airport terminal and going through pages and pages of drug ads, I had a revelation: I would rip out all the ads and leave what I wanted to read in the magazine. That way, I could get through my reading materials, uninterrupted by intercalating pages of ads.

Right after I tried that approach with one industry journal, I had an even better revelation: I would rip out what I wanted to read and leave the ads in the magazine. This was a better approach because the magazine had 90% of what I didn’t want to read, the bulk being drug ads. Some curious passengers waiting near me were amused to watch a suit-clad professional gleefully ripping through a magazine like I was in kindergarten at playtime.

I admit, ripping was quite a therapeutic exercise, and I liked it so much that I continue this habit today. I’d rip out only the articles I wanted to read and throw the rest of the magazine away. This also made me realize that I only read a small percentage of many of the magazines/journals I subscribed to, and these publications were taking up the desktop space I should be cluttering with more useful things like chocolate cookies.

Medical journals have a lot of drug ads, because the pharma companies want doctors reading these journals to peruse through the drug ads. Has any consultant researched on the return on investment (ROI) of drug ads in medical journals? Has any of these drug ads answered a specific question that a doctor happened to have while skimming through the journal? I’d be very interested in the results of such research if it exists – I suspect the medical journals themselves would conduct such surveys to come up with “advertising rate cards” that run in the tens of thousands of dollars for drug companies. But other than having X number of doctors within the journal’s membership, how many of those doctors actually read these drugs ads? The medical community is often critical of how much drug companies spend marketing and promoting drugs. Wouldn’t a main channel for such activities – drug ads in journals – be part of that excessive cost?

If you think medical journals have the most drug ads, you may not have picked up a current copy a consumer magazine. Recently my husband brought home a copy of Reader’s Digest. Good thing it was a used copy and he got it for free, or I’d get him to return it to the store, for the sheer number of drug- or disease-related ads in this publication. I counted no less than a dozen ads in the issue. To be fair, not all of these were ads from drug companies – I saw a few dietary supplement ads and herbal therapy ads. The nutraceutical business is catching onto the pharmaceutical business tactics in advertising in magazines.

Where does this leave us, the end users of magazines and journals? How about making the journals and magazines free for us? I wouldn’t mind seeing more “open access” medical journals. Does a medical journal really need individual subscriptions of $149 when it makes much more on the advertising and reprinting rights from drug companies that pay to put drug ads in them? I don’t know the answer to that because I don’t run a medical journal, but I’ve spoken with consultants in the publishing industry who knows how profitable the reprinting business can be for medical journals, and I’ve also read some of these journal editors make hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries.

So, let’s keep the drug ads, I’m fine with that. But as magazines and journals insert more and more drug ads, pass along some of that “benefit” to the end users. Recently a UK-based cardiologist and I were talking about the possibility of creating a heart failure resource website, borne of a conversation we had on Google Health Coop. Soon into our discussion we hit a problem – a large percentage of medical information available is “subscription only” – making a comprehensive and fair-balanced resource difficult to create without huge up front licensing expenses.

Open access journals for all of us would be a direct benefit of drug-ads. Out of gratitude I may even spend some time reading some of these ads instead of throwing them away with the rest of the magazine.

Updated: June 30, 2013 — 8:08 am

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