Cancer Center Advertising: Doing More Harm Than Good?

You see them everywhere. On TV, in print, on the sides of buses. The ads run on radio and on the internet. They’re ads for cancer centers. They cost a lot of money. Money that’s not spent to develop new cures, control the cost of treatment or improve the quality of hospital food. Someone is paying for those ads. If you’re being treated at one of these cancer centers that person is you.

The amount of advertising by cancer centers has exploded over the past decade, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and like most ads they manipulate the viewers or listeners with emotional messages that may mislead them. The article is based on a study and editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, titled appropriately enough “Cancer Center Advertising—Where Hope Meets Hype.”

Advertising generally has one or both of two purposes.

  • Increase the number of people in a market for a product or service, and
  • Increase the market share of one product or service provider, lowering the share of the competition.

You can’t get cancer from exposure to these ads (as far as I know) and no one in their right mind watching a cancer center ad would volunteer to get cancer just to enjoy the same wonderful experience as the person in the ad.

These ads are all about market share. There is a growing number of cancer patients and each cancer center wants more patients so they advertise. Decisions are driven by emotion so that’s what the ads are based on. They may tell you about the latest whiz-bang cancer fighting gizmo but, given how short ads are, the facts are few, far between and possibly misleading.

Rodney Warner
Rodney Warner

It’s not just emotion driving decisions but fear in particular and cancer patients have that in spades. These ads can tap into our fears that we may die or suffer horrible side effects or spend endless days in the hospital without the use of that gizmo or the latest cancer fighting drug that costs more than your house and may extend your life by a month. We fear losing the opportunity of a cure if we aren’t treated with the gizmo, whether or not in reality the gizmo is any better than standard treatment.

Testimonials are very effective in advertising so there are testimonials by grateful patients talking about their wonderful treatment and amazing cure at cancer center A. What makes you think the treatment, care or results would be different for this person at cancer center B on the other side of town that has a lower advertising budget? What makes you think there aren’t patients at cancer center A who died long, terrible deaths at the hands of staff who maybe did less than a great job?

I got a second opinion at a world renowned cancer center in New York City that, if I followed, would’ve resulted in my death. Does that mean they don’t help other people? No. I was treated at a much less famous hospital in Boston and my life was saved. Does that mean all their patients are cured? No. How helpful would my testimonial be? Not much if you actually consider the facts of my situation.

Spending on advertising by 890 U.S. cancer centers more than tripled between 2005 and 2014, rising from $54 million to $173 million, according to the study. Just twenty of these centers accounted for 86% of the 2014 spending and the Philadelphia area had three of the top four.

  • Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the for-profit, five-center company with a hospital on East Wyoming Avenue, spent $101.7 million across all its hospitals. It spent 59% of all the money going to cancer center advertising.
  • Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center (which has partnered with Cooper University Health Care in Camden) spent $13.9 million across its system.
  • Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Northeast Philadelphia, spent $3.5 million.

Our friends at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center and Jefferson University’s Kimmel Cancer Center didn’t break into the top twenty, but that may be due to how the figures were calculated.

The amount we’re talking about is peanuts compared with the shameless extremes of the pharmaceutical industry, which poured $5.2 billion into ads last year partially to pay for prime time TV ads to get you to buy their treatments for your shaking leg syndrome and constipation due to opioid use.

Need to decide where to be treated, whether it’s initial treatment or because you’ve relapsed? There are many things to consider. Advertising is not one of them. If a cancer center is advertising a lot, all it means is that it has a big advertising budget. Amount and quality of advertising have nothing to do with quality of care.

If you see lots of advertising by a cancer center it may be a reason NOT to go there. Their priorities are screwed up. They’d rather spend money on ads instead of on you.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are those of the author or other attributed individual and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the OncoLink Staff, University of Pennsylvania Health System (Penn Medicine), or the University of Pennsylvania, unless explicitly stated with the authority to do so.

2 thoughts on “Cancer Center Advertising: Doing More Harm Than Good?

  1. I work at a community based hospital radiation therapy clinic. We had to get a CON to put in our linear accelerator. We don’t advertise because we are told it costs too much. Our equipment is very good and we have very good staff here. My issue is that the competitor in our Metro area advertises heavily and has a lot of referring med oncologists send them patients even though it causes hardship for the families to have to transport patient 40-100 miles instead of using our facility for 2-6 weeks of treatment (which is in their hometown or close to it). Someone on Medicare with bone mets, or brain mets, or breast cancer or any cancer should not have to drive or be driven so far when the EXACT SAME TREATMENT is available close to their home. I have 33 years as a medical dosimetrist, and it just breaks my heart.

  2. Mr. Warner, I believe you draw incorrect conclusions and your article is baseless insofar as some of the information you dispel. I beg to differ with most of your insinuations. Glad that you have recovered and even cured. I may end up a long journey towards my end, but it certainly will not be terrible one ,at my large Cancer Center, because they treat me right!

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