Safety Valued Over Effectiveness by Prescription Drug Users

October 15, 2014

Consumers remain confident of prescription drug safety, despite several recent instances of popular medications being pulled from the market or linked to serious conditions. However, older drugs are more trusted, even when their cost is comparable to newer medications that may be perceived as more effective.

These conclusions from recent surveys come at a time when a number of popular medications have garnered attention regarding their safety. Within the last year or so, the arthritis medication Vioxx has been pulled from the market, some antidepressants have been linked to suicides in children and adolescents, and popular over-the-counter pain relievers have been associated with cardiovascular and gastrointestinal concerns.

Despite these high-profile cases, 84 percent of American consumers remain "very confident" (36 percent) or "somewhat confident" (48 percent) about the safety of prescription drugs sold in the U.S., according to an AP poll. Among the group of individuals surveyed, 74 percent had taken physician-prescribed medications in the past year.

Older drugs are perceived as safer than medications that are new to the market, according to a survey by Medco Health Solutions. About one third (31 percent) of the survey group rated medications that had been on the market for 10 years or more as safer than newer drugs; 11 percent gave the safety nod to newer drugs; and 38 percent thought the two groups were equally as safe. Conversely, newer medications get the edge when consumers are asked about effectiveness: 33 percent said they thought newer drugs were more effective than medications that had been on the market for 10 or more years, 11 percent said they thought older drugs were more effective, and 39 percent thought the two groups were equally as effective.

Overall, safety concerns trumped effectiveness among the Medco survey respondents, with 70 percent saying they would prefer older prescription drugs (perceived as safer) to newer medications (perceived as more effective), even if the cost were the same. As characterized by a spokesperson for Yankelovich, the research firm that conducted the survey for Medco, "consumers are willing to sacrifice effectiveness to ensure their own safety."

With consumers focused on the safety of the medications they take, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-the federal agency responsible for prescription drug oversight-has retained the public's confidence. Three-quarters of the AP survey group said they were "very confident" or "somewhat confident" of the FDA's ability to ensure the safety of prescription drugs. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a nonprofit foundation that focuses on health issues, found similar levels of confidence in the FDA-22 percent were "very confident" and 55 percent were "somewhat confident" of the FDA's effectiveness. And, despite the recent safety concerns surrounding specific medications, the public's confidence in the FDA has largely remained constant: 62 percent of the KFF survey group said their confidence in the FDA's ability to ensure the safety of prescription drugs has remained the same over the past few years, compared with 27 percent who said their level of confidence has decreased.

Given that the appropriate use of prescription drugs is a key element of one's overall health care, it is important that any safety concerns about medications do not interfere with necessary drug therapy. Communications concerning health care coverage should reinforce the details of the prescription drug program, and remind employees of the importance of discussing their medications with their prescribing physician and/or pharmacist. Open discussions between patient and these health care professionals has the added benefits of facilitating appropriate medication use, alerting patients to possible side-effects, and better understanding prescription drug options, including generics.