By David Woods ([email protected])

The pharmaceutical industry is too often blamed for the stratospheric costs of healthcare — particularly in the United States. Yet, according to a series of surveys conducted by USA Today, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, pharmaceutical products account for only about 10% of the total spent on healthcare in the US.

There was further good news of sorts for the industry. Of the 1695 people surveyed, slightly more than half believed that prescription drugs developed over the past 20 years have made life better; and a similar proportion of respondents felt that drug advertising is mostly a good thing, with two thirds saying such advertising helps to educate people. Again, asked whether prescription drugs reduce the need for expensive medical procedures and hospitalization, the answer was a 59% affirmative.

Continuing on a positive note, 80% of respondents said that they trust drug companies to develop new and effective products; 72% said those companies offer reliable information about side effects and safety, while 55% believe that the industry informed the public quickly of a safety concern.

So much for the good news. Among the negative views were a whopping 79% who maintain that the cost of prescription drugs is unreasonable. Strangely enough, in light of the percentage of healthcare costs attributable to pharmaceuticals, another 79% believed that drug company profits contribute to the price of prescription drugs, with 74% saying that that was too much… and more than half of respondents claiming that those companies spend too much on marketing to doctors, and to patients.

The pharmaceutical industry has clearly done much to alleviate pain and suffering: antibiotics, analgesics, antivirals, and antihistamines, just to deal with the ‘a’s. Yet it continues to be the whipping boy of present and aspiring politicians, and segments of the press. This, I believe, has much to do with the way in which pharmaceutical companies tell their story. Sometimes, their public relations are handled with brilliance. An example was the way in which McNeil Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, handled the tainted Tylenol© episode … pulling every last package of the product off the shelves in addition to being very open and transparent about their ongoing investigations into the incident. But mostly, the industry’s public stance might be seen as reactive and sometimes even secretive.

During my tenure at the Canadian Medical Association Journal I wrote lengthy articles about several pharmaceutical companies, visiting their facilities in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, and the United States. What I found, in interviewing scores of their researchers and executives, were dedication, enthusiasm, and commitment to enhancing the health and well-being of patients. That’s the kind of positive image the industry needs to project by opening a window to its activities for medical journal writers and the public press; by transparency leading to greater awareness.

That will go a long way towards dealing with the adverse reactions and side effects that too often mask the good that the industry does.