Protecting Cancer Patients from the Shameless Promotions of Cancer Treatment Centers

Researchers recently examined how cancer centers promote themselves, and they drew a dismal conclusion: “[A]dvertisements by cancer centers frequently promote cancer therapy with emotional appeals that evoke hope and fear while rarely providing information about risks, benefits, costs, or insurance availability.”

Two years ago, according to the report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, more than 1,500 cancer programs were accredited by the American College of Surgeons. More than 1.6 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year, and by 2030, an aging population is expected to increase its incidence by nearly half. The competition for cancer patients will only expand, and this study leaves us wondering if the search for care will lead only to a shrinking ability of patients and caregivers to make informed decisions about where to get it.

Researchers examined 409 advertisements in top magazine and television media markets pertaining to 102 cancer centers, and found that:

  • Emotional appeals were frequent (85%), most often evoking hope for survival (61%), describing cancer treatment as a fight or battle (41%), and inducing fear (30%).
  • Nearly half of the ads included patient testimonials that usually focused on survival, rarely included disclaimers (15%), and never described the results that a typical patient may expect.
  • Treatments (88%) were promoted more often than screening (18%) or supportive services (13%).
  • Benefits of advertised therapies were described more often than risks (27% vs. 2%), but rarely quantified (2%).
  • Few advertisements mentioned coverage or costs (5%), and none mentioned specific insurance plans.

Anyone who watches “Mad Men” understands that a successful ad for chocolate or cigarettes often strikes a deep, subconscious chord with someone’s emotions. But to sell treatment for life-threatening illness that way is harder to defend.

Advocates of these ads claim that they provide valuable information to the public about screening and treatment options, and promote patient-centered care. Critics say that such advertising might exaggerate therapeutic benefits and drive inappropriate demands for clinical services. We agree that they lead to what we call overtreatment and that much advertising in health care is misleading.

Satisfying the “inappropriate” demand contributes to escalating health care-costs, the report says, and should be of concern especially to advanced cancer patients because they often overestimate the potential benefits they will receive from new treatments or their chance for cure. As the researchers wrote, “Misleading, emotionally charged, or incomplete promotional claims in cancer center advertisements could contribute to widespread misperceptions about cancer care.”

If you or a loved one is seeking help in diagnosing or treating cancer, the journal editors offer this advice:

Although it is natural for patients with a new diagnosis of cancer to look for the best news possible, they should try to view cancer center advertisements as critically as they view any other advertisements. They should not believe that the patient experiences portrayed in such advertisements are typical or that their own experience will be the same. They should choose where they receive cancer care on the basis of all issues important to them, including benefits, risks, and costs.

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