The Commodification of Medicine


I’ve always understood that one of the key roles of doctors is that they are gatekeepers for medicine. Because of this I have been and continue to be perplexed by the perpetual advertising that I see on television for medicine. It is very different to see a beer commercial and decide that you want to have a beer from seeing a commercial on depression and deciding your needs Prozac. This level of encouraging self-diagnosis and medication ventures into dangerous territory.

Although, I can see some reasonable expression of this phenomenon in the context of things like erectile dysfunction. If you know you could use a little help down there, becoming aware that there is help can be informative, and becoming aware of how to save on Cialis can ease your mind about costs.

Also, if you’re over the counter acid indigestion medicine isn’t cutting it; you could probably reasonably suggest a prescription strength option to your doctor. But choosing your cancer medication or your blood pressure medicine based on a commercial feels irresponsible.

The Danger

We, in general, haven’t gone to medical school. We don’t generally understand the contraindications (or even what that means or why it’s important). We don’t even know how to properly diagnose our ailments. According to some, every ache and pain is cancer. To others, rub some dirt on it. This is why we need medical professionals who diagnose, and prescribe appropriately. This includes the dosage, the brand (or generic in some cases) and parallel treatment.

Because doctors are still required to prescribe, it might sound like this is a feckless gripe, but people are susceptible to advertising. That’s why we spend billions of dollars a year on ads. And if an ad gets lodged into the psyche of someone in the target audience, the doctor must fight an uphill battle to convince the patient that the medication is unnecessary. And remember, doctors don’t get paid to not prescribe. They do, however, receive kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies for prescribing their drugs. The combination of these phenomena make the fact that drugs are advertised a real threat to our health.

The Advertising Psychology

It is really this combination of persistent ads; pharmaceutical reps influence doctors and the complexity of medicine that makes it so insidious that it becomes dangerous. It is almost impossible for doctors to stay current on all of the medical innovation that are constantly arising or the messaging that many medications broadcast over television. Therefore, the doctors are also complicit in the commodification of medicine.

A particularly susceptible target to these ads comes from those experiencing mental health issues, like depression or anxiety. Because the ads are well crafted and targeted, and because people with mental health issues might not have the appropriate discernment to filter these ads, and because many people with mental health needs use their primary physician to prescribe their medicine, these medications are likely to be mis-prescribed.

We are currently experiencing an opioid epidemic and much of this epidemic is due to doctors over-prescribing pain medication. The demand for this is understandable because nobody wants to live in pain. However, if it isn’t pain but fear of pain created by pharmaceutical commercials, then the problem has been manufactured. Now, we have a national state of emergency. Pills have to lead to an explosion of Heroin use nationwide and our office of Health and Human Services must address this crisis while being underfunded, understaffed and under-supported.

A Medical Crisis

I’m not saying that pharmaceutical commercials are the cause of our opioid crisis, but we do have an irresponsible approach to providing medication in our nation. This must be addressed with a comprehensive understanding of the problems and with the goals of health, not profits, for our citizens. Many people feel that taking on these problems in a regulatory manner is against capitalism. It is important to understand that we must have some flexible understanding of how things work. If we are too orthodox, we miss the wisdom of potential action.

Just like helium balloons don’t disprove gravity, but it must be understood that they rise, it is important to understand that healthcare and capitalism are not purely compatible. In an orthodox capitalism, there is an incentive for doctors to create sickness, not health. Knowing this, we must change how we approach medication and profits from health care. This can open the door to better treatment and healthier people.


When I see commercials for medication I can’t help but recoil. Medicine is not a commodity, but an essential component of health. Because of that, we need gatekeepers (doctors) and a system that promotes health, rather than corporate profits. When we see it this way, we can then address our opioid epidemic as well as our rising healthcare costs and our decreasing health.

What do you think of when you see prescription drug add-on television? Leave us a comment in the section below.

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