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“Bad Drug” Ads Make for Bad Decisions

By Mellanie True Hills

It starts with an ominous voice: “Warning!” Ambulance lights flash and pictures of people in distress fill the screen. These are a few of the telltale signs of a “bad drug” ad.  

These commercials spread dangerous health misinformation that can put patients at serious risk. Sometimes they even carry an official-looking logo. They often target seniors. But while bad drug ads intentionally look like urgent health warnings, they are lawsuit advertisements instead. These commercials fan patient anxiety and drive business to lawyers who want to build class action lawsuits.

These bad drug ads undermine the doctor-patient relationship by raising treatment concerns as they appear to be from government agencies or other trusted sources. They intrude on medical decision making by bypassing physicians and targeting patients directly. And even worse, they put lives at risk by scaring patients into abandoning their treatment without consulting their doctor first. 

This is especially dangerous for patients with life-threatening conditions such as atrial fibrillation. 

Atrial fibrillation, commonly known as afib, is an irregular heartbeat that is often fast. This condition can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and even dementia. Managing afib includes taking blood thinners to reduce the risk of blood clots and strokes. 

Yet bad drug ads can frighten patients with afib into abandoning their medications, putting them at risk for deadly or disabling strokes.

Having had afib myself, I can attest to the emotional and physical vulnerability experienced by patients with this condition. Once I was afib-free due to a procedure, my challenging experiences with afib inspired me to launch, a nonprofit organization that helps those living with afib. We focus on raising awareness of afib and sharing treatment and management resources to support patients and their family members. 

I am determined to speak out against bad drug ads and other dangerous misinformation. Patients must understand that paid spokespeople are behind these commercials. They are not lawyers, and they do not have patients’ interests at heart. 

Doctors, on the other hand, do. They know their patients, their health history, their conditions, and their lifestyle. Shoulder to shoulder with their patients, they make informed decisions about the best treatment plan for each patient. That’s why patients should turn to trained health care professionals for their medical advice. 

Lawyers and advertising agencies should never influence medical decision-making, especially during this pandemic. Patients are the ones who get hurt when they are frightened into abandoning their carefully chosen medications.

During the coronavirus crisis, some patients have less access to health care professionals. This difficulty can make them more vulnerable to misinformation, especially that touted by fear-mongering advertisements. 

As a patient and a patient advocate, I urge those with afib: Never make medical decisions without consulting your doctor first.

Mellanie True Hills is the founder and CEO of the nonprofit American Foundation for Women’s Health and, the world’s foremost atrial fibrillation patient advocacy organization.