Ethical and Epistemic Issues in Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising: Where is Patient Agency?

Publication Date


Document Type



Arguments for and against direct-to-consumer drug advertising (DTCA) center on two issues: (1) the epistemic effects on patients through access to information provided by the ads; and (2) the effects of such information on patients' abilities to make good choices in the healthcare marketplace. Advocates argue that DTCA provides useful information for patients as consumers, including information connecting symptoms to particular medical conditions, information about new drug therapies for those conditions. Opponents of DTCA point out substantial omissions in information provided by the ads and argue that the framing of the ads may mislead patients about the indications, uses, and effectiveness of the drugs advertised. They also suggest that DTCA has a number of potentially negative effects on the doctor-patient relationship. The standard arguments appear to assume a simplistic correlation-more information means more agency for patients. However, empirical studies on medical decision making suggest that this relationship is much more complex and nuanced. I examine recent research on ways in which patients are vulnerable with respect to DTCA. In order to address the complex issues of information acquisition and consumer decision-making in the health care marketplace, the focus should not be simply on what information patients need in order to make medical decisions, but also on the conditions under which patients actually are able to make medical decisions requiring complex medication information. This requires examining both the cognitive limitations of patients with respect to drug information and investigating patients' preferences and needs in a variety of medical contexts.

Original Citation

Womack, C. A. (2013). Ethical and Epistemic Issues in Direct-to-Consumer Drug Advertising: Where is Patient Agency? Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy, 16(2), 275-280. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11019-012-9386-8