This is a post by Inez Zimakowski

Now, before you @ me, hear me out. I’m not saying Australia needs to move to a US-style model with massive billboards and several TVCs every commercial break. But you have to admit, there is a serious lack of consolidated information out there for patients. Almost everything gets advertised now, from brothels to board games – but the medicine we use to treat illnesses, major or minor? Well, I guess we don’t need to know anything about that.

Time for change

When undertaking intensive research for a project late last year, I realised that I, like many Australians, know nothing about the illnesses out there and what can be used to treat them. And no, Dr Google isn’t a suitable teacher. We need this information from recognised authorities in language tailored to consumers with little or no pre-existing medical knowledge.

‘But Inez,’ I hear you ask, ‘why can’t our doctors just tell us about all the drug options and their benefits?’ Simply put, they just don’t have time. According to a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 10.6 million patients were discharged from hospitals in 2015, and there were only 88,040 registered medical practitioners at the time. That doesn’t equate to many minutes per patient.

Often, this translates to doctors only having time to disclose what they’re legally required to regarding side effects – and little else. The rest is up to us. So where are patients meant to turn for reliable information?

Source material

Many patients find themselves in situations where they have very little idea of what the drugs they’re taking actually do, how they work, and what the pros and cons of each option are. You might think, ‘Perhaps they should ask their doctor more questions.’ But, if you were chronically ill and suffering, wouldn’t ‘It’ll make you better’ be enough?

The reality is that most medications don’t have a lot of reading material, and patients are often left looking at forums online to get other people’s experiences, asking questions on Instagram support pages, and checking side-effects lists on websites that definitely aren’t published by the manufacturer.

It’s here that information from companies manufacturing medications, or from state health departments, should slide in to fill the content gap. If patients are left hunting for helpful YouTube videos, and only finding content telling them to trust Jesus or drink fermented cabbage juice, the pharmaceutical industry has failed them.

According to what I would describe as a bit of a dull read, ‘Too Much Medicine’ by R. Moynihan, when advertising restrictions on prescription medicine were loosened in the US, advertising actually contributed to raising consumer expectations of medicine and influenced the behaviour of both doctors and patients. So why has the Australian government been so stagnant on drug advertising? Is it because of the rising tide against ‘big pharma’ and anti-vaxxers? Do they want to be seen as controlling the industry? Or are they just that confident that we’ll take what we’re given without knowing what it does?

 Filling the gap

Despite the lack of advertising, more Australians are using prescription medication every year, partly due to an increased awareness of chronic conditions. However, over one million Australians are misusing prescription medication, with prescription medication-induced deaths now outnumbering those by illicit drugs.

Admittedly, those who choose to take drugs knowing the potential effects will always do so, but there are many cases where people develop drug-related issues and dependencies because they simply don’t have all the information. It would be easy to place the blame on our doctors and say they should give us all the information upfront, but how can we expect them to know everything about every drug, with new ones being developed every year and thousands of medications on the market? Is that not setting the bar a bit too high? The onus should be on our pharmaceutical companies, the ones doing the studies and developing the products. In this case, they really do have all the answers, so let’s allow big pharma to give them to us.

Again, I’m not asking for big pharma to start putting out TVCs or billboards. Nobody wants that (apart from maybe the advertising industry). But there should be a consolidated source of information on every drug, what it does, who manufactures it, how its manufactured, the side effects, benefits and expected timeframes for results. We need to fill not just the content gap, but the understanding gap, allowing patients to feel in control of their own health. This information might be in medical journals, but most of us don’t have access to those, nor can we decipher them. It needs to be in a format suitable for consumers – and it needs to be there now.