Most Americans think doctors are overly influenced by pharmaceutical companies in their prescribing decisions, and many patients believe over-the-counter options are often overlooked, according to a new prescription drug poll by Consumer Reports.

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Consumers: Doctors overly swayed by drug makers

August 24th, 2010

YONKERS, N.Y. – Most Americans think doctors are overly influenced by pharmaceutical companies in their prescribing decisions, and many patients believe over-the-counter options are often overlooked, according to a new prescription drug poll by Consumer Reports.

In a telephone poll of more than 1,100 U.S. adults by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, 69% of respondents said drug makers have too much sway over doctors, and half say that doctors are too eager to prescribe a drug when other non-drug options are available for managing a condition.

The nationally representative survey, conducted in late May, also found that 51% of adults think doctors don't consider a patient's ability to pay when prescribing a drug, and 41% said physicians tend to prescribe newer, more expensive drugs. What's more, almost half of consumers (47%) believe gifts from pharmaceutical firms steer doctors' choices of drugs for their patients.

Consumer Reports noted that the big advertising budgets of pharmaceutical companies are having an impact on consumers as well. About 20% of adults polled who take a prescription drug have asked their doctor for a medication they saw advertised, and 59% of those people said doctors issued the requested prescription.

Overall, 45% of Americans take at least one prescription drug on a regular basis, and on average they take four medications routinely, according to the survey.

Still, the consumer advocacy group pointed out that consumers are economizing on health care "in ways that might be dangerous."

The poll found that in the past year, 39% of consumers polled took some action to reduce costs, and 27% failed to comply with prescriptions. And to save money, 38% of those younger than 65 without drug coverage skipped filling a prescription.

At the same time, consumers are seeking more drug safety information and details about possible side effects. The survey revealed that 87% of respondents considered knowing the safety of a prescription drug as a top priority, 79% were concerned about drug interactions, and 78% cared about the side effects of a drug.

"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," Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, said in a statement.

According to Santa, recent studies — including one published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine — have spotlighted insufficient safety information available to consumers. At least 1.5 million serious, preventable drug errors occur in the United States each year.

"The safety information provided on all fronts — in hospitals, at the doctor's office and the pharmacy — is hit or miss," Santa stated.

Research indicates that doctors are quick to dismiss complaints about prescription drug 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," commented Santa.

According to the Consumer Reports poll, 53% of Americans taking a prescription drug have talked to their doctor in the past 12 months about switching to another medication — with side effects being one of the chief reasons, along with cost and lack of insurance coverage.

Adverse effects are understudied, noted Santa, who added 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 cited several classes of drugs where the risk of side effects may overshadow the benefits of the drug. Those include medications to treat type 2 diabetes and overactive bladder, as well as antipsychotics.

For example, Consumer Reports said, a new Best Buy Drugs report that evaluates prescription drugs to treat overactive bladder cited studies finding that only 10% to 20% of people are still taking their medication after six to 12 months. It's estimated that cost may be a factor, but about a third to one-half of the dropout is due to side effects, according to the report.