Dec. 11, 2004 – To the dismay of pharmaceutical companies, a consumer protection organization yesterday launched a free website designed to provide prescription drug users and their doctors information about the comparative safety, effectiveness and price of medicines.
Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports, said it established the Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs project because prescription drugs is a major consumer issue.
"Consumers and their doctors need credible, unbiased information about the comparative effectiveness and cost of prescription drugs," said Gail Shearer, director of health policy analysis based in Consumers Unionâ€™s Washington Office, in a press release announcing the launch of the website. "We hope that our outreach and educational efforts will result in millions of people being able to afford needed medicines, and in large savings for many others whose doctors prescribe an effective, lower-cost prescription instead of a high-priced medicine."
The initial release of the website hosts information about three categories of pharmaceuticals: cholesterol-lowering medicines; heartburn, ulcer and acid reflux remedies; and drugs to help with arthritis and pain. The website features downloadable reports comparing the various available medicines in each category and offers plainly written details about the available studies, issues to take into account when patients and doctors discuss the drugs, and cost-saving tips.
Drug companies and their organizations, which have long enjoyed a near monopoly over the provision of knowledge about their drugs to the public and physicians alike, have expressed concerns that consumers would use the new website to self-medicate or that they would obtain information not specific enough to their own individual needs.
"It's troubling that Consumer Reports recommends what it believes is the most effective drug in a class. There is no way it can make that determination," Jack Cox, spokesperson for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that makes Lipitor, one of the drugs reviewed on the website, told the Associated Press. "Medicines, like the patients they treat, are not one size fits all."
And Jeff Trewhitt, spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the nationâ€™s leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, told the AP: "Patients often respond differently to the same medicine. It's important for health care professionals to choose the medicines that meet the needs of individual patients."
But Consumers Union points out that its reports explicitly encourage patients to discuss options with their doctors. The purpose of the information provided, the group says, is to help patients and their doctors find the safest, most effective, and cheapest medicines available. In fact, the group goes as far as to offer patients various tips on issues to bring up with their physicians.
Dr. Jerry Avorn, a Harvard University professor of medicine, speaking to the Boston Globe, called the online project "a good antidote to the $3 billion worth of direct-to-consumer advertising that patients are barraged with." Avorn, who also works as a physician at Brigham and Womenâ€™s Hospital and is the author of Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks and Costs of Prescription Drugs, serves as one of several advisors to the project.
He added, "The data on which it's based is not thought up by some Madison Avenue ad man."
To compile the information used in its reports, Consumers Union worked with the Drug Effectiveness Review Project (DERP), an initiative involving researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University Evidence-Based Practice Center, which conducted studies as part of the Drug Effectiveness Review Project. DERP provides information on drug efficacy to numerous state Medicaid programs. Consumers Union also said its reports are peer reviewed by medical experts in each of the drug categories analyzed on the site.
Outreach to physicians, pharmacists, senior and low-income groups will be an integral part of the project, Consumers Union says, and it has set up partnerships with several major associations to help disseminate the information. So far the American Public Health Association, the Alliance for Retired Americans, the American Medical School Association and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare have agreed to help.
The group refuses advertising or other monies from companies, and has instead relied on funds from foundation and government grants to finance the Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs project.
Joel Gurin, executive vice president of Consumers Union, said in a press statement he hoped the project would put pressure on drug companies to "compete more aggressively on price when consumers begin to migrate to effective and safe drugs that are also more affordable."