Skip to content

Patchy sex drug coverage is so misleading

March 26th, 2007

Dr Petra

Well you probably already know it, but just in case you’ve not seen the headlines the hormone patch Intrinsa (a medication to treat female sexual dysfunction) will become available on the NHS this week.

Which has been a delight to all the papers – particularly editors and subeditors who’ve had a field day with wordplay around ‘patch’, ‘sex’ and ‘women’…..

Sex patch spices up women’s love lives – Glasgow Daily Record
Patching up sex problems – Sky News
Patch gives women that loving feeling – Telegraph
Patch of the day – Metro
‘Viagra patch’ now for women – The Sun
Love is a patch on the bottom – Sunday Times

Much of the news coverage has incorrectly compared Intrinsa with Viagra (ignoring the fact that Viagra works on the circulatory system, Intrinsa is a hormonal supplement). And although the news coverage has included (to a greater or lesser degree) the small print that Intrinsa is only available on prescription and for women with a clinical need, most have not conveyed this message clearly with the remainder of their reportage.

Instead we’ve been presented with is a whole heap of free publicity for Procter and Gamble (makers of Intrinsa) and very little accuracy. Coverage implies the patch will transform women’s sex lives, increase desire and cures all manner of sexual ills. It can ‘increase sexy thoughts’ (The Sun). It’s a must have item that can transform relationships “there are women out there who miss the old days of fun sex with their husbands and women who feel they are not sexual enough. All these women are going to buy this drug and try it at least once” (The Telegraph). It can get women in the mood for weekend sex (Sunday Times). And it make you want sex more as apparently the drug ‘produces a 74% increase in ‘frequency of satisfying sexual activity’ (The Sun).

Wow. With coverage like that you can expect women and their partners to be flocking to the doctors, asking for the patch. Which is exactly what the company who made the patch wants, and exactly what the media gave them.

Before we do all rush off for the patch we need to look at what’s behind these headlines – and uncover how sadly journalists took the P&G press release and didn’t bother to do any further investigation.

First of all the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US refused this drug a licence because of untested safety concerns. They were worried about the idea of women taking hormone treatments for months, which you have to do to get any effect from the patch.

The reason for this is the patch is only suitable for postmenopausal women who have had a hysterectomy, and will only work if you take it alongside HRT. So women have to take the patch plus HRT to get an effect and it’s not recommended to take HRT long term. And even P&G admit they only know about how the patch works for around a year, they do not know about long-term safety effects.

All the news coverage implies that women who take that patch can expect a major increase in their levels of sexual desire. However P&G’s research on the patch did not find this. Their studies showed women on placebo reported three sexually satisfying encounters per month, whilst women on the patch reported four such encounters. So basically if you use the patch you’ll get one more sexually satisfying encounter per month. Not exactly the stellar amount the press is having you believe – but not too difficult to find out if you simply ask the drug company for their research data.

Worryingly the experts quoted in the news coverage are either not experts at all (a number of ‘sex gurus’ I’ve never heard of have been wheeled on to praise the medication). Coverage from established experts has also suggested misleading information about the drug* Coverage has suggested the drug gives women ‘something for the weekend’. This is wrong. The patch must be worn consistently for weeks or months. Unlike male sex drugs like Viagra or Cialis that you can take once, Intrinsa requires constant use – it isn’t ‘something for the weekend’.

Much of the reportage also claims women who are not interested in sex are like this due to low testosterone levels. I would like to know what evidence base this has been drawn from since independent medical research (not that funded by P&G or other drug companies) does not correlate low desire and low hormone levels. Evidence based medicine is supposed to guide healthcare and research nowadays, but not, it seems, if you’re reporting on female sexual functioning.

Throughout the coverage are such gems as describing testosterone as ‘the male hormone’ which is slightly unnerving to see health and science correspondents state. Alongside this is the promise that Intrinsa is just one of 20 new drugs for women in the pipeline – which is also not quite accurate. Although a number of drug companies are working on new sex drugs (after all it’s being set up nicely by the press as a growing market place) there aren’t 20 drugs about to become available. There are 20 types of drug some of which are just in the ideas stage, not all of which are for women, and most of which will never see mainstream production.

From the US there has been some critical coverage complaining the Europeans are getting a drug denied American women. Perhaps a better angle would have been that American women are lucky that on this occasion someone is looking out for their interests.

Sadly this kind of patchy coverage is predictable of media discussions of Intrinsa to date. We knew that Intrinsa was going to be launched this spring with a whole lot of hype alongside it, but I was naively hoping that at least one journalist might go beyond the press release and a chance of a snappy headline to ask questions like

‘how safe is this drug?’
‘what are the health prospects for women using it long term?’
‘if the FDA didn’t consider it safe why was it approved in Europe?’
‘will the drug be made available on the Internet – and what precautions have been taken to protect women’s safety if this happens?’
‘why do many doctors, medical journals and sex therapists think the drug is a problem?’
‘most women who have sex problems will not be ‘cured’ by this patch – what options are there for them?’
‘media coverage isn’t making it clear who this patch is for – what impact could that have on women’s lives?’
‘what impact will this have on an already overstretched NHS?’

So here’s some additional information if you would like to get beyond the hyped up headlines and find out about Intrinsa, the research behind it, and wider debates about female sexual dysfunction

The press coverage for this story is extensive, so if you are worried about the poor journalism behind the reportage of this story, or perhaps are concerned that important health issues affecting women haven’t been addressed I suggest you go to this page in google news where the Intrinsa press coverage is listed. Most have websites where you can post comments. So if like me you’re worried about this current patchy reportage then post your concerns, questions or comments so other people can get an idea that this story isn’t quite what the papers would have us believe.

* alteration (20/05/08) Since writing this blog a number of experts previously quoted in the piece have contacted me claiming they were misquoted in the original media coverage and therefore within this blog. As a result I have removed the direct quotes from them, but in the interests of transparent reporting I’ve retained the links to original media coverage which indicates how the drug was described. It is unfortunate when experts are misquoted in stories like this, as it can lead to misunderstandings over products – as well as affect their professional reputation unfairly.

Comments are closed.