Some Hospitals Are a Big Source of Bad Medical Advice

Like other businesses, hospitals rely on promotions to generate customers. But when the customer is buying health care, an ill-advised promotion can do irreparable harm.

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, has embarked on a campaign to stop 20 different 20 hospital systems from partnering with companies that offer low-cost screenings for heart disease and stroke risk because the exams can do more harm than good, which the advocates say is “unethical.”

We, too, have advised against hospitals hooking up with mobile screening operations because the branding opportunity for them too often makes people who aren’t ill afraid of getting ill.

Public Citizen sent letters to hospitals in eight states and Washington, D.C., seeking to stop their screening promotions.

Hospitals pair up with testing outfits to raise their profiles and boost referrals, but that’s not what they tell consumers. That message is that, for a reasonable cost, you, too, will benefit because you can find out if you have a higher risk for heart problems or stroke in time to make changes and seek treatment to reduce your risks!

According to Public Citizen, as reported by, “the promotions rely on fear mongering and erroneously suggest that for most adults in the general population, these screening tests are useful in the prevention of several potentially life-threatening cardiovascular illnesses.”

These “check it out” appeals appear on websites, in newspapers or through direct mail.

Screenings – often performed in specially equipped mobile units whose signage changes according to the affiliated hospital – often include ultrasound tests for artery blockages and elasticity, weaknesses in the abdominal aorta and a resting electrocardiogram (ECG), in which the heart’s electrical activity is mapped on paper.

The promotions, of course, don’t mention that best practice generally does not include such routine testing for people without risk factors or symptoms. The promotions don’t mention that such widespread screening can lead to misleading results, unneeded and expensive additional tests and maybe even unnecessary surgery. Not to mention that such overuse contributes to increasing health-care spending.

We’re not optimistic that the hospitals approached by Public Citizen will acknowledge the bogus motivation behind their promotions, but if the effort contributes to a greater understanding among consumers about when and why to be tested, that’s valuable.

To learn more about how to strike the right treatment balance, see our blog, “The Right Amount of Care.”

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