How does media coverage affect medicine use?


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As with the Catalyst statin debacle of 2013, Danish researchers have found a marked change in antidepressant usage following intense media coverage

It’s no surprise the media has some influence on drug-taking patterns – but just how much?

A recent Danish study has found a significant decrease in use of antidepressants occurred alongside an intensive period of negative media coverage about the drugs.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Pharmacy looked at 271 articles published between 2010 and 2011, sourced from the nine biggest Danish newspapers on the internet.

After analysing the main themes of each article, they found the media’s coverage of antidepressants focused on:

  • Teratogenic side effects experienced by pregnant women using antidepressants;
  • More barriers for depressed people to receive psychotherapy than to receive pharmacological treatment with antidepressants;
  • How the pharmaceutical industry uses disease mongering to increase sales of antidepressants;
  • Whether the effects of antidepressants could be attributed to placebo instead; and
  • Prescription patterns of antidepressants in children.

The media was able to “set the agenda” by markedly increasing their focus on antidepressants in certain periods of time, the researchers argue.

“They primed the public to focus on side effects by mainly focusing on this subject. The framed antidepressants as a drug class with low effect, that too many people use, and which is prescribed as a result of the pharmaceutical industry’s focus on gaining profits.”

This led the public to have a more sceptical view on antidepressants, which probably contributed to a decrease in the usage of antidepressants, they say.

Figure 1: Number of people using antidepressants and number of article about antidepressants.
Source: Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy.

The effect of media influence on drug consumption was also seen in Australia following the airing of a two-part Catalyst program by the ABC called Heart of the Matter, which was critical of statins.

The program, which aired on 24 and 31 October 2013, questioned the link between high cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease, and suggested that the benefits of statins had been overstated and the harms downplayed.

Nearly 1.5 million Australians are estimated to have viewed each part of the program.

Researchers found a 2.6% reduction in statin dispensing following the program – equivalent to 14,000 fewer dispensings Australia-wide per week.

The two-part Catalyst program Heart of the Matter aired on 24 and 31 October 2013.

And in the week the Catalyst program aired, there was a 28.8% increase in discontinuation of statin use. An estimated 28,784 additional Australians ceased statin treatment.

Overall, following the airing of the program in late October 2013 up until 30 June 2014, there were 504,180 fewer dispensings of statins, estimated to have affected 60,897 people, a study published in the MJA found.

An internal ABC review found the second episode of Heart of the Matter involved a breach of editorial standards on impartiality and that there was a problem of omission of important information.

“The program’s treatment of use of statins in secondary prevention focused solely on mortality
benefits in a way that reinforced the view that statins were overprescribed and their benefits
exaggerated,” the review found.

“The principal relevant perspective that statins have wider benefits for this group was
not properly presented.”

News media has become a major source of health information for the public and is therefore vital in forming the individuals’ opinions and decisions about health topics, the Danish researchers point out.

“Furthermore, in situations in which there is uncertainty about a health or medical issue, both the public and health providers will look to the media to flag potential problems.

“There is … a negative side with the danger being that some patients may discontinue a necessary treatment. The media’s role in this should be further evaluated.”

Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy; online 2 August 2017

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