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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 17132

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Singer N
Cancer Center Ads Appeal to Emotions at a Fragile Time
The New York Times 2009 Dec 19;=&emc=th&pagewanted=all

Full text:

A print advertisement for prostate cancer surgery at Mount Sinai Medical
Center in Manhattan is typical of the way many elite research and
teaching hospitals sell hope to the public.

KEEPING IT PERSONAL Advertisements by leading cancer treatment centers
have made bold claims.

“Our newest prostate specialist, Dr. David Samadi, has pioneered a
minimally invasive approach that allows him to retain the highest cancer
cure rates with the lowest risk of side effects,” says the ad.

Highest cure rates. Lowest risk. What evidence does the medical center
have to back up such superlatives?

The ad’s claims are based on the successful results of Dr. Samadi’s
operations and testimonials from his patients, said Jane Zimmerman,
Mount Sinai’s chief marketing officer.

In medical science, such anecdotal data would not be considered
statistically valid. But ads for nonprofit medical centers are not held
to scientific standards of evidence.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the business end of the cancer
treatment industrial complex and the physicians on the front lines
treating patients,” said Dr. John D. Birkmeyer, a cancer outcomes
researcher who is a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan
Health System.

Some medical centers take a similar approach to marketing their services
in specialties like cardiovascular disease and cosmetic surgery. But
cancer treatment advertising is particularly fraught with emotion,
critics say, because it can play on fears about this disease.

If a drug maker ran an ad for a cancer medicine, Food and Drug
Administration regulations would require the company to be able to
support any superiority claims with substantial evidence from rigorous
clinical studies.

But federal agencies cannot limit the ad claims made by nonprofit
medical centers about their ability to cure people of diseases like
cancer, according to the government’s main ad regulator, the Federal
Trade Commission.

Cancer experts interviewed for this article say there are no
comprehensive statistics showing that any one elite medical center has
better overall cancer success rates than its competitors.

Yet the advertising campaigns of prestigious cancer centers often use
superlatives, promote the latest technologies, promise unique care or
recount miraculous patient recoveries. Based on such ads, a consumer
might reasonably assume that the medical profession has made more
progress in the decades-long war on cancer than the more sobering facts
would show.

The problem with many ads is the implication that choosing a particular
hospital could be the deciding factor in whether a cancer patient lives
or dies, said Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a medical professor at the Dartmouth
Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.

People with some more complicated cancers or rarer diseases like
leukemia do tend to fare better at comprehensive cancer centers. But Dr.
Welch and others worry that such ads could persuade people with
localized cases of more common diseases like prostate cancer to travel
long distances from their families at great expense to obtain treatment
that may be as successful, or unsuccessful, as the treatment available
much closer to home.

And, Dr. Welch said, the ads may exaggerate the benefits of cancer
treatment, implying that a cure is certain.

But marketing executives defend their approach, saying cancer treatment
ads tend to play more heavily on emotion than on medical statistics
because the ads are not intended to inform people who already have the
disease. They are meant to make an impression on future patients, who
may decide on treatments years after they have seen an ad, or to sway
influential people who might advise a future patient……………


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As an advertising man, I can assure you that advertising which does not work does not continue to run. If experience did not show beyond doubt that the great majority of doctors are splendidly responsive to current [prescription drug] advertising, new techniques would be devised in short order. And if, indeed, candor, accuracy, scientific completeness, and a permanent ban on cartoons came to be essential for the successful promotion of [prescription] drugs, advertising would have no choice but to comply.
- Pierre R. Garai (advertising executive) 1963