Doctors can and often do prescribe medications for different purposes than what the FDA has approved them for. But drug companies face tight restrictions on communicating with physicians about these so-called “off-label” uses. If the pharmaceutical industry has its way, those restrictions may soon ease. Such a change would be healthy overall.
Drugs undergo clinical trials for specific indications, such as Avastin for colorectal cancer. The label received from the FDA upon approval allows the manufacturer to promote the drug to physicians for those specific indications only. But a drug that works for one disease may work for a related disorder (e.g., another form of cancer) or something that seems totally different, like macular degeneration. Often the drug company will follow its initial clinical trials with trials for other indications in order to broaden the label and expand sales, but salespeople can’t bring up these uses until they’re officially on-label.
Drug companies get in trouble all the time for off-label promotion. According to the Wall Street Journal (The Free Speech Pill), 15 off-label cases were settled between 1996 and 2010 for a total of $8.7B.