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Cancer center ads more emotional than informative

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Marilyn Nieves

Television and magazine advertisements from cancer centers often tug at people’s heartstrings, but rarely provide information needed to make a decision about cancer treatment, says a new study.

“I think there is a concern in general and among some physicians that advertising may be creating some inappropriate demand for services or providing unrealistic expectations,” Dr. Yael Schenker, the study’s senior author from the University of Pittsburgh, said.

She and her colleagues write in the Annals of Internal Medicine that most cancer centers in the U.S. use ads to tell people about their services, but there has been little research on the content of those messages.

“These ads are common,” Schenker said. "They’re hard not to notice.”

A Reuters special report found that some cancer centers may skew their survival data to suggest superior outcomes in information shown to prospective patients (see Reuters Special Report of March 6, 2013 here: reut.rs/VFhuli.)

To analyze the advertising that may attract those patients to begin with, Schenker and her colleagues used a media monitoring service to find ads for cancer centers that ran in major magazines and on television networks during 2012.

Overall, they found 409 advertisements placed by 102 cancer centers in magazines and TV networks throughout the year.

“Cancer treatments were promoted far more often than screening services,” Schenker said. “Also very little information was provided about these services such as risks, benefit and costs.”

About 88 percent of ads talked about treatments and about 18 percent promoted cancer screenings. The majority made emotional appeals, with 61 percent mentioning hope for survival and about 41 percent describing cancer treatment as a fight or battle.

More than a quarter of the advertisements touted the benefits of a treatment or of screening, but only about 2 percent mentioned the risks. About 5 percent mentioned costs and none talked about specific insurance plans.

About half the ads featured testimonials from cancer patients and 5 percent included celebrity endorsements. Despite a Federal Trade Commission mandate requiring it, however, only 15 percent of these ads included disclaimers, such as stating that most patients do not experience the same results as the person in the ad. None described the results that a typical patient could expect.

“We would caution patients not to rely on cancer center advertisements when making cancer treatment decisions,” Schenker said.

Her study didn’t look at how the advertisements influenced potential patients, but said that’s “an important next step.” It would also be useful to look at these ads in relation to healthcare costs and quality, she said.

There are more than 1.6 million people diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. each year, Schenker and her colleagues note in their report, and that number is expected to increase as the population ages.

In an editorial published with the new study, Dr. Gregory Abel of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston points out that the researchers omitted Internet advertisements and they don’t specify what proportion of all the advertising consumers encounter is made up of ads from cancer centers.

“Although the authors’ findings are provocative, without these two important sources of context, the ultimate impact of the content of cancer center advertising remains uncertain,” he writes.

Schenker said there is more work to be done on the impact of cancer center advertisements.

“These advertisements are hard to ignore,” she said. “Certainly I would always encourage patients to talk with their physicians about anything they’ve seen.”