The Veriblog

Are DTC TV Ads “Scaring” Patients?

A recent BBC article (“Medicine Information Leaflets ‘Too Scary’ says Experts”) illustrated how word choice and framing of side effects on drug inserts may sway patients towards not taking their medication. But why? The Academy of Medical Sciences report, which the BBC quotes, shares that patients may be confused, anxious, and/or off-put by the current way side effects are labeled “possible” or “serious” with little further explanation.


This got us thinking, how many times have you seen a commercial for a prescription drug (aka a DTC TV Ad) and not noticed the portion that’s dedicated to listing the side effects? Does this medium “scare” patients too?


When it comes to treatment discussions and decisions, physicians and patients often find themselves conversing about the benefits of treatment and also it’s side effects. This communication can be more robust in the office, but that’s not always the case in drug leaflets as the BBC noted. However, commercials for prescription treatments can also face the same problem due to limited ad time and space.


Looking across the minority of conversations in our database that even mentioned television ads in general (a whole separate topic!), we see that when patients speak about drug commercials beyond a minimal response they do seem to focus on the “scary” side effects the commercial mentioned.


This behavior dates even as far back as some of our earliest conversations in 2006:

PT: Yes, I hear it on the TV, all that stuff that they talk about I notice you’re not doing that and I notice it’s gonna cause you trouble. Well I didn’t want to take them because it says it will cause liver trouble


and is also still present in 2017:

PT:  That’s like these commercials you hear for the, uh, ask your doctor to prescribe this, to prescribe that, and then they give you all the, the possible, uh

DR: Things that could go wrong.


These concerned patients highlight the same issues that the BBC mentioned about how these side effects are presented. Furthermore we saw some of these patients even push back against a treatment because they heard the commercial state “possible” and “serious” side effects, which turned them off altogether.


Just as with drug leaflets the list of side effects mentioned during an ad are often not fully explained, presumably due to time constraints and wanting to focus on the benefits of treatment. However, this lack of detail can certainly create a negative brand impact, especially if all a patient hears is “serious risk of X” instead of all those benefits presented before.


So is this all bad news, and patients are left feeling apprehensive and unsure from these warnings? Not necessarily. One silver lining that pulls through in-office is that patients who speak up about their concerns receive physician support to try to turn things around:

PT: Yeah, I, I saw it in TV, from what, from what is. Maybe, do you think these kind of, uh, injections are, you know, there is, of course, some medicine stays inside me and then maybe I will have some, uh, kind of a reaction or my, uh, liver, uh –

DR: Oh, no, no, they take, they’re very safe. This has been around for over 10 years now.  And they say it’s very safe. Nothing, no liver problems


However there is one big catch- only a minority of dialogues in our whole database even mention TV ads and even then most patients minimally acknowledge them. So how can a physician calm a patient’s fears about side effects when patient doesn’t voice them? Some physicians take this support to the next level and thwart any potential fear by preemptively minimizing  side effects during treatment positioning:


DR: If you seen some of the, uh, ads on television they know that they do talk about possibility of infection, cancer, things like that. The things that they’ve got to talk about it. But in the clinical trials there was no, there was no, uh, issues. So, it’s, it is FDA approved


One thing BBC’s article drives home is that if patients don’t understand the information they receive, they’re less likely to feel confident about their medications. This is certainly a takeaway we can understand. However, we also see hope because of the supportive behavior of physicians who are trying to help these patients understand and regain that confidence.


So while there may be drug leaflets and ads briefly mentioning “possible” and “serious” side effects, physicians are still working hard on the front lines of patient education.



Shannon Sysko is an Analyst at Verilogue. She completed her BA and MA from the University of Delaware, focusing on Applied Linguistics. When she’s not analyzing what people say and how they say it, she enjoys traveling and marathoning TV shows.




Verilogue offers fly-on-the-wall access to candid healthcare conversations between patients and their healthcare providers. Verilogue’s trained linguists analyze these dialogues using their expertise, and provide unique insights for our clients. Reach out with questions or comments via the below form!

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