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Analysis Shows Advertising by Cancer Centers Frequently Evokes Hope and Fear, but Provides Little Information

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Key Points

  • An analysis of clinical advertisements placed by cancer centers in consumer magazines and on television networks found that the majority promoted cancer treatments rather than screening or supportive services.
  • The majority of the ads placed used emotional appeals that were more commonly related to survival or potential for cure rather than comfort, quality of life, or patient-centered care.
  • Clinical advertisements that use emotional appeal without information about indication, benefits, risks, or alternatives may lead patients to pursue care that is unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence.

In a recent study in Annals of Internal Medicine, Vater et al analyzed the content of 409 unique clinical advertisements on television and in magazines placed by 102 cancer centers in 2012.  The researchers assessed each ad for types of clinical services promoted, information provided about those services, use of emotional appeals, and the use of patient testimonials and disclaimers. They found that the advertisements frequently promoted cancer therapy with emotional appeals that evoked hope and fear, while rarely providing information about risks, benefits, costs, or insurance availability. The researchers suggest that the ads may lead patients to pursue care that is either unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence.

Study Methods and Findings

The researchers reviewed cancer center advertisements for clinical services placed in 269 U.S. consumer magazines and on 44 television networks. Of the 409 unique ads promoting clinical services, 57% indicated a specific type of cancer (eg, breast cancer), but only 9% indicated the stage of cancer targeted by advertised therapies. More than 25% of the ads mentioned potential benefits of the advertised therapies, but less than 2% mentioned the possibility of risks from treatment and only 5% mentioned costs or coverage of advertised treatments.

Their analysis found that the majority of cancer center advertisements (88%) promoted cancer treatments rather than screening (18%) or supportive services (13%). Eighty-five percent of the ads placed used emotional appeals that were more commonly related to survival or potential for cure (85%) rather than comfort, quality of life, or patient-centered care (43%).

Nearly half of the advertisements (44%) included endorsements from patients with cancer, and a few (5%) included endorsements from celebrities. The patient testimonials overwhelmingly focused on stories about survival or cure (79%). None of the advertisements described the outcome that a typical patient may expect.

Ads May Lead to Unrealistic Expectations

“Clinical advertisements that use emotional appeal uncoupled with information about indications, benefits, risks, or alternatives may lead patients to pursue care that is either unnecessary or unsupported by scientific evidence,” wrote the researchers. “Pursuit of unnecessary tests or treatment may … expose patients to avoidable risks and contribute to increasing costs.”

Further studies are needed to determine how cancer center advertisements influence patients’ preferences and expectations of benefit from cancer treatments, the investigators concluded.

Yael Schenker, MD, MAS, of the University of Pittsburgh, is the corresponding author for the Annals of Internal Medicine article.

The study was supported with grants from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health and the Junior Scholar Award from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Medicine. The study authors reported no other potential conflicts of interest.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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