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Consumer Reports Poll: Learning More About Drug Safety & Side Effects

A new prescription drug poll by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that 69 percent of Americans currently taking a prescription drug say pharmaceutical companies have too much influence on doctors’ prescribing decisions, and half say that doctors are too eager to prescribe a drug when non-drug options exist. Drug side effects and drug safety are major concerns to consumers who receive poor quality information about this from the manufacturers and their doctors.

Opinions About Prescription Drugs

The poll found that 45 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug on a regular basis and, on average, they take four medications routinely.

Other facts gleaned from consumers who currently take a prescription drug include:

  • People are economizing on healthcare in ways that might be dangerous. In the past year, 39 percent took some action to reduce costs and 27 percent failed to comply with prescriptions. To save money, 38 percent of those under 65 without drug coverage skipped filling a prescription.
  • 51 percent said they think that doctors don’t consider a patient’s ability to pay when prescribing a drug.
  • 47 percent said they think gifts from pharmaceutical companies influence doctors’ choices of drugs for their patients.
  • 41 percent said they think doctors tend to prescribe newer, more expensive drugs.The massive advertising budgets of pharmaceutical companies have an impact on consumers: 20 percent of consumers who take a prescription drug have asked their doctor for a drug they saw advertised, and among them, the majority of doctors (59 percent) issued the requested prescription.

The Consumer Reports health poll also reveals that people want more safety information and details about possible side effects:

  • 87 percent said that knowing the safety of a prescription drug was a top priority to them.
  • 79 percent were concerned about drug interactions.
  • 78 percent cared about drug side effects.

Drug Safety & Drug Side Effect Concerns

“Given that so many Americans are taking prescription drugs, and often multiple medicines, we were somewhat reassured by the high priority associated with safety and side effects. Being attuned to those concerns can help counterbalance the tremendous influence of the drug companies,” said Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center director, John Santa, MD, MPH. According to Dr. Santa, recent studies, including one published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in August, have shined a light on the poor quality of safety information available to consumers. At least 1.5 million serious, preventable drug errors occur in the US each year.

“The safety information provided on all fronts—in hospitals, at the doctor’s office and the pharmacy—is hit or miss. When considering a new medication, consumers should ask their doctors about the drug in question, its purported use, how it should be taken, whether certain activities should be avoided, whether drug interactions are possible, and the types of side effects that could occur,” said Dr. Santa.

Drug Safety Steps You Should Take

Research suggests that doctors are quick to dismiss complaints about side effects. “Patients should speak up. Discussing the risks of adverse effects with your doctor will help you prepare for those effects while increasing the chances you’ll stay on the drug you need,” said Santa. According to the Consumer Reports health poll, 53 percent of Americans currently taking a medication have talked to their doctor in the past 12 months about switching to a different prescription drug, with side effects being one of the main reasons, in addition to cost and lack of insurance coverage.

Adverse effects are understudied according to Dr. Santa, who notes that most research focuses on a drug’s benefits rather than potential problems. Recent reports published by Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs, a public education project that compares drugs based on safety, effectiveness and cost, have highlighted several classes of drugs where the risk of side effects can overshadow the benefits of the drug. Some drug categories that are notable for their side effects include those to treat type 2 diabetes, the class of medications known as antipsychotics and prescription drugs to treat overactive bladder, the subject of the latest Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs report and an area where drug company influence has led to strong sales of drugs with significant side effects and only moderate effectiveness. The report cites studies that have found that only 10 to 20 percent of people are still taking an overactive bladder medicine after 6 to 12 months, representing a very high treatment dropout. It’s estimated that cost may be a factor, but about a third to one-half of the dropout is due to side effects. “The overactive bladder category is really the poster child for drugs that offer limited benefits and a slew of adverse effects. And they’re quite costly,” said Dr. Santa. Despite the fact that drugs in this category are only moderately effective, sales have been strong thanks to heavy advertising to the tune of $126.9 million last year for five overactive bladder drugs. At the same time, drug companies spent $6.6 billion last year alone on promotions to physicians and other health care professionals, according to IMS Health.

Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs, provides detailed analyses for drugs to treat overactive bladder and more than 30 other conditions. The reports are available for free online at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org/BestBuyDrugs. More information about the poll is available online at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org.