How Does the Media Make People Feel They Have a Disease?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

In 2006, a study entitled ‘Giving Legs to Restless Legs: A Case Study of How the Media Helps Make People Sick’ was published in the online journal PLOS Medicine. The study clarified the distinction between two important issues: raising awareness of diseases to help people and raising awareness to sell to people.

Close up of male hands holding a newspaper and a coffee cup on the table.
People see the ads printed in the newspapers and consider to buy a medicine for their ‘sickness’. (Image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

According to the study, helping sick people get treatment is one thing, but persuading healthy people that they are sick is another. It presented a case study of a drug called Ropinirole for treating Restless Legs Syndrome.

The study reviewed the progress of a public awareness campaign targeted at a condition they abbreviated as RLS. Two months after the initiation of the campaign, GSK declared in a press release that according to the results of a company-funded study, RLS was keeping Americans awake at night. Two years later, they received their FDA approval for Ropinirole. It was the only FDA-approved medication for RLS. According to the authors, following that approval, a multimillion-dollar campaign was launched to bring consciousness about RLS internationally.

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The News Coverage of a Newly Developed Drug

The study then gave an objective account of news coverage about RLS and how disease marketing works. Most of the articles targeted three main marketing areas: exaggerating the prevalence of the disease, encouraging doctors to diagnose it more, and suggesting that people with these symptoms need treatment. None of these articles questioned the data of GSK’s study about the prevalence of RLS. A majority of the stories stated how serious the consequences of RLS could be. Some of them even pointed out that suicide could be the eventual consequence of untreated RLS.

A sick patient taking pill-bottle with medication or vitamins from a doctor.
Disease marketing makes more people consider themselves sick. (Image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

Some of these articles showed people how to discuss it with a doctor or promoted self-diagnosis. Some of them encouraged people to get a prescription from their doctors. They justified this by warning that many doctors may not have heard about the condition. They also referred people to the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation, a nonprofit organization heavily subsidized by GSK.

The PLOS Medicine study concluded with some useful suggestions for the media. But these can be helpful for everyone. First, if a condition is widespread, people might have heard about it before. So, when people hear about a new or prevalent disease, they should be careful in accepting it. Do not encourage diagnosis for all the people. What is the use of labeling people with an illness as some symptoms are mild, and not everyone needs treatment?

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Broadening the Market for a Disease

Another marketing ruse of the media is seen by widening the scope of the symptoms. This way, they create a broader niche for a disease. These efforts suggest that mild symptoms should also be considered in the diagnosis. A good example regards ADD, attention deficit disorder. According to the statistics, five percent of students have ADD. However, rates of diagnosis and medication use have been growing at such a fast speed that it cannot be explained by current conditions seen by doctors, teachers, or parents.

A female pharmacist standing behind the counter and holding a box of medications, talking with a female customer.
The media broadens the symptoms to extend the market for the disease. (Image: Gligatron/Shutterstock)

A New York Times article called ‘The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder’ investigated this issue in 2013. According to the article, too many people have been diagnosed with ADD, which is in line with 20 years of publicizing ADD by pharmaceutical companies. Magazine and TV ads suggest that poor school performance and forgetfulness are the results of ADD, which has to be medicated.

Today, one in seven children is diagnosed as having ADD by the age of 18. People continue to be diagnosed well into their adult lives, with ads even blaming ADD for leading to divorce.

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Creating New Diseases to Sell Drugs

Another trick is creating new diseases to extend the patent of a profitable drug. An Atlantic article in 2012 covered the issue that involved the antidepressant Prozac. It had been a massive success for Eli Lilly since 1987 when it was first introduced. But in the first quarter following the expiration of the patent, sales plummeted by 66%.

The company came up with a crafty solution. They introduced a new condition, PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder), and sent their highly paid experts to FDA to get approval for Sarafem. It had the same formula as Prozac, just with a different name. Lilly’s marketing efforts and this clever strategy led to the sales of a generic drug at brand-name prices.

There is also another smart tactic. These companies often use abbreviations to refer to diseases to make them sound more medical.

Again, distinguishing between genuinely helping people with symptoms and convincing people that they need medication is important. For pharmaceutical companies, however, this distinction is blurred. They see disease awareness campaigns in general as a profitable marketing tool. It is the job of the audience of such ads not to be influenced by them easily. These ads try to sell something, but the consumer does not need to buy it.

Common Questions about How the Media Makes People Feel They Have a Disease

Q: What is RLS?

RLS is the restless leg syndrome. It is caused by an unpleasant sensation in the legs that creates the urge to move them.

Q: What is Sarafem?

Sarafem is a medication developed by Eli Lilly, the same manufacturer that produced Prozac. After the patent of Prozac expired, the company introduced Safarem with the same ingredients as a cure for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder.

Q: What is selling disease?

Selling disease refers to a tactic employed by the media to sell more drugs to people. They manipulate people into believing that they have a disease.

Q: What are disease-selling tactics?

Media create awareness around the disease to sell medication. They suggest that milder symptoms should be taken into account, promote self-diagnosis, or make up new illnesses for drugs.

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