Never underestimate the ingenuity of the pharmaceutical industry in promoting its products to the American public. The latest example: The “Real Age” questionnaire that millions of people have filled out on the Internet, to tell them if their “real age,” based on lifestyle and family history, is younger or older than their chronological age.
It turns out that the company that sponsors the Real Age web site sells to pharmaceutical companies the detailed information it receives from patients who fill out the 150 questions in its survey. The actual names and email addresses of patients do not get transmitted to the drug companies, but Real Age sends emails to patients on behalf of the drug companies, and these emails are targeted to what a drug company thinks that patient might be interested in, based on the patient’s responses to the Real Age questions.
All this happens, according to a report by Stephanie Clifford in the New York Times, whenever a patient clicks “yes” to the multiple opportunities offered during the Real Age questionnaire to “become a member” of the Real Age community. Once a patient says yes to membership, his information becomes part of a database that is then combed to see what pharmaceutical drugs might appeal to the patient.
“It’s free,” as the Real Age web site keeps reminding people.
But is it really? Patients who are drawn toward a drug by “direct to consumer” pitches like this are likely to sign on for a prescription they may not really need, and every prescription drug carries side effects that may outweigh the drug’s benefits. In the early years of a drug’s marketing, when manufacturers are most keen on pushing their products, the risks are not fully known to the medical community. That’s because the studies done on drugs to win FDA approval are usually limited to a few thousand carefully selected patients.
The safest approach to using prescription drugs is explored by Patrick Malone in his new book, The Life You Save. See chapter 7.