Time for an Overhaul of the Ban on Advertising Medicines?

Janet Kettels
By Janet Kettels

Janet is an award-winning communicator with plenty of experience in PR, issues and transformation.


Here’s a funny thing. Pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals are intentionally restricting the information that consumers see online. I doubt that the majority of people searching for information about aesthetics, wellness and health are even aware of this fact.

It all stems from the Medicines Act 1968 and the subsequent amends in the Human Medicines Regulations in 2012. This prohibits anyone in the UK from advertising a prescription-only product to the general public. The Regulation actually states ‘A person may not publish an advertisement that is likely to lead to the use of a prescription-only medicine’. If you’ve been to the United States, you will probably have seen advertisements for prescription products – from the airport billboards through TV and social media. That’s because the rules of engagement are different on the other side of the pond. They can do it.

In contrast, here in the UK two of the groups that arguably know the most about medicines (the healthcare professionals and the manufacturers) are extremely restricted in what they can share with the general public when it comes to medicines. Despite having access to tons of information, they are unable to ‘advertise’ to the public, and this also hamstrings information sharing too.  

Regrettably, it feels like the interpretation of ‘advertising’ has grown to include sharing just about anything to do with a prescription only product with the general public. This includes people who are actively looking for information about their health. Some of the bigger pharmaceutical companies are not even listing their prescription-only products by name on their UK affiliate websites anymore. It’s hard to see how a list of products could lead to the use of that product. This seems to be well away from the idea of ‘advertising’ and sadly consumer education will be all the poorer for it.

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This leads to several challenges.

  • If you don’t know that information is being intentionally restricted, how do you navigate to what you need to make informed choices? As a consumer, the law is designed to make you talk with a healthcare professional. That’s all well and good within a National Health Service with lots of spare time. But how does that work in our current time-constrained system or within the private, cash-pay setting?
  • With new models of healthcare service provision on the horizon (think Babylon and other online-only models such as screening using AI) the consumer (or at this point the potential patient) needs to be well enough informed about their health state to have some control. So how do they get that if the information on medicines in the public domain is skewed?
  • If healthcare professionals and manufacturers are playing by the rules, then they are not sharing information about prescription-only medicines. That leaves a wide-open space for non-HCPs to fill the gap. Although the Medicines Act prevents anyone from advertising medicines to the public, if you don’t come under the auspices of the MHRA or a governing body, then who governs you? While some influential non-healthcare professionals within the cash-pay health, wellness and aesthetics sectors have the knowledge and credibility to provide good quality information, many of these alternative sources are just sharing their personal views. Does that sound sensible?
  • And finally, thinking of digi-health, ChatGPT, and other AI chatbots. These algorithms pull information from the internet and dish it up in various ways. So how is that going to work if the only information within the public domain in the UK is coming from the US or from alternative sources?

As we think about the dynamic and ever-expanding sector of health and wellness, we can bucket in several health states where a combination of prescription solutions and non-prescription options are the norm. Think Menopause, Weight Management and Facial Aesthetics. For consumers interested in finding out more about each of these, there is a plethora of products to consider (HRT versus bioidentical hormones versus vitamins; fat-busting tabs and jabs versus medical devices versus fad diets etc; botulinum toxins versus medical devices versus laser/light etc).

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However, it’s easy for consumers to get a skewed view of treatment options from online searches. For example, just under 50% of facial aesthetics treatments in the UK include a botulinum toxin, yet you wouldn’t think that after a cursory search online, as only the medical devices and light/laser equipment can be advertised. That means people may be put off because they don’t want fillers, or have a wrong view on what the different treatments can do.

To get ready to navigate the private, cash pay system, the consumer needs to know about the options in order to be informed, and then ask questions before the point of purchase. Informed consent only works when you have time to consider and weigh up all the options.

Yet as we’ve already seen, the information available online, especially from companies and increasing the healthcare professionals, is intentionally very limited in detail and scope. This can easily lead to confusion as often the only easy-to-find information about medicine is the Patient Information or the Summary of Product Characteristics (the SPC) from the Electronic Medicines Compendium (both of which can be terrifying reads) or stuff that comes from non-healthcare professional sources. 

Ultimately these are my messages:

  • For people searching for information about medicines online: Do your homework but be aware you are only seeing some of the data. Always talk with the experts, even if you have to insist on it.
  • For healthcare providers: Set time aside to really talk about all the treatment options with potential patients. While there is information online, there is still plenty of myth and error that leads to confusion. And it’s tough to unpick that online ahead of a consultation with you.
  • For the companies and healthcare providers: Be bolder in providing the best quality information about diseases and conditions possible. And perhaps it’s time to ask whether the Medicines Act needs an update.

Digital everywhere with online healthcare provision around the corner would not have been in the minds of the people who penned original views. With our modern use of online search and the relentless megatrend of pushing more healthcare service provision online, I wonder if the ban on advertising medicines is fit for the future?

 

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