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Don't get your medical advice from personal injury attorneys' ads

The Hill, February 21, 2018

By: Tiger Joyce

I’m sure you have seen those pesky and over-the-top advertisements from personal injury attorneys with catchy jingles and toll-free numbers looking to reel in their next client, but did you know they pose a serious danger? These ads actually jeopardize patient care because consumers, frightened by the message of the ads, too often stop taking prescription medications without consulting a medical professional.

Since 2015, trial lawyers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads in pursuit of new clients. However, these ads can be misleading and don’t tell the whole story. In June 2016, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution that attorney advertising should have “appropriate and conspicuous warnings that patients should not discontinue medications without seeking the advice of their physician.” These ads undermine the simple notion that physicians and health care providers, not personal injury lawyers or the “aggregators” who run the ads for the lawyers, should dispense medical advice.

What’s more, some lawmakers such as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) have called for the ads to be more strictly regulated especially as they become more widespread on television and online through various social media channels.

Congress brought the issue to light in 2017 in an effort to put limits on how lawyers can advertise recognizing the damaging effects this type of advertising could have on those who stop taking their life-saving medications. However, no legislation transpired. Yet this should be considered again by those in Congress; while the right to free speech should be protected, it should not carelessly put the public at risk — therefore, necessary parameters should be put in place when these ads are run.

Regrettably, this has become an important public health issue. According to a 2017 survey from Public Opinion Strategies, one-in-four people who see an actual trial lawyer ad regarding a medicine they currently take indicated that they would immediately stop taking the medicine without consulting their doctor. There is no doubt these ads are effective in recruiting clients — otherwise, the lawyers wouldn’t run them. Analysis from the X Ante Mass Tort Intelligence firm confirms that. According to X Ante’s analysis of data provided by Kantar CMAG, in 2017, lawyers and aggregators ran approximately 426,000 ads targeting drugs and medical devices at a cost of over $139 million. 

The reason why trial lawyers pump significant money into these ad buys is because, armed with more clients, they can boost settlements and payouts when they go after large corporations. This leads to larger fees for themselves.

The ads do more than help recruit clients, however. They also have the ability to influence the thinking of citizens who might wind up serving on a jury in lawsuits regarding medications that were the targets of the ads. A survey conducted by Trial Partners, Inc. found that 90 percent of jurors would be somewhat or very concerned if they saw an advertisement claiming that a company’s product injured people. Additionally, 72 percent of jurors agreed somewhat or strongly that if there are lawsuits against a company claiming its products have injured people then there is probably truth to the claim — showing just how big of an impact these ads can have.

Responsible doctors do not treat patients they have not examined. Three years of law school and passing a bar exam do not confer on lawyers the wisdom and experience to practice medicine. Advertisements by — or on behalf of — lawyers, should not provide medical advice to consumers.

It is essential that legislators, state attorneys general, public health officials and all entrusted to protect consumers take the appropriate steps to protect consumers from the serious public health problem posed by misleading attorney advertising.