With tears in her eyes, Peggy Kessler remembers her victory over stage 4 pancreatic cancer. “It’s really amazing that a doctor can tell me I have two months to live,” she said, watching. the camera, “then I go to the Cancer Treatment Centers in America and they save my life.”
In this two-minute commercial, Kessler’s words serve as a moving endorsement for the hospital network. But for an advertising watchdog, the ad is disturbingly incomplete: Nowhere does it mention that the five-year survival rate for Kessler’s diagnosis is less than 3%, making it an outlier.
This type of announcement is not an anomaly. A report released this week by TruthInAdvertising.org, also known as TINA.org, suggests that cancer hospitals frequently use patient testimonials to paint an overly rosy picture of a typical patient’s outcome.
“It gives them hope that maybe they thought their cancer didn’t exist,” Bonnie Patten, executive director of TINA.org, told BuzzFeed News. “It turns out that what they are told is just misleading.” Even a warning like the one at the top of Kessler’s ad – “No case is typical. You shouldn’t expect to feel these results ”- does not sufficiently explain the generally low chances of survival, she said.
This story-rich tactic is used by many of the nation’s best-known cancer hospitals. They include the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, which have each been identified as circulating dozens of unrealistic patient testimonials this year and spending millions. dollars in marketing every year. MD Anderson, for example, reportedly spent over $ 15 million in 2017.
But of the 43 institutions surveyed by TINA.org, the biggest spender by far was the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a nationwide network of hospitals, whose marketing budget exceeded $ 68 million last year. It is also accused of being one of the main sources of misleading advertising.
From 1996 to 2016, the company was subject to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission that prohibited it from using testimonials that distorted typical patient outcomes.
But this year, TINA.org found a batch of promotional material circulating online, on TV, or in print – 130 in total – that it found misleading. In a complaint filed this week, he urged the agency to once again end such marketing.
“There is a special place in hell for for-profit companies providing unrealistic or false messages to sick and vulnerable patients in an attempt to coax their business.”
Abigail Obre, spokesperson for CTCA, told BuzzFeed News via email that the company’s ad “goes through meticulous review before it goes public.” She added that the ad is “just one way we are informing and educating patients nationwide to help them understand their disease, the latest diagnostic tools and treatment options available, and our integrated approach. of cancer care delivery ”. Patients do not receive any compensation for appearing in advertisements, she said.
Despite the huge sums hospitals spend to attract cancer patients, their ads are lightly regulated compared to the pharmaceutical industry. For example, while the FDA requires prescription drug manufacturers to present a “fair balance of risks and benefits” in their advertisements, healthcare organizations are not required to do the same.
The FTC’s rules are broader – they prohibit any kind of misleading advertising – but only apply to for-profit companies, like the CTCA. Most of the cancer hospitals on TINA.org’s list, including MD Anderson and Memorial Sloan Kettering, are nonprofits.
Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University, often sees testimonials from cancer centers that make him cringe.
“There is a special place in hell for for-profit companies that provide unrealistic or false messages to sick and vulnerable patients in an attempt to cajole their business, when the reality is that their care is likely to be comparable to locally delivered care, more convenient or more affordable sites, ”he said via email.
Prasad, who was not involved in the TINA.org report, researched cancer patients who are “exceptional responders” – the few who see their tumors shrink or disappear in response to treatments that don’t work. not for the majority. He says these patients sometimes live longer not because the therapies work better, but because their tumors grow slower than others.
The watch group’s report looked at which ads were accessible in 2018, even though they may have been posted earlier. The ads, from CTCA and other hospitals, featured patients who had survived stage 4 lung cancer (five-year survival rate: 4.7%), stage 4 kidney cancer (4.8 %), cancer of the esophagus (19.2%) and stage 4 cancer (27%).
Hospitals, however, have defended their marketing. “MD Anderson takes great care to ensure that our messages are accurate, appropriate and responsible,” said spokesperson Laura Sussman via email. Kim Polacek, spokesperson for Moffitt, said his patient testimonials are “based on actual medical results specific to that patient” and that his doctors discuss treatment options and possible outcomes with all patients before any plan. treatment.
Alex London, a bioethicist at Carnegie Mellon University, argued that hospital advertising regulations should be more aligned with those of drug companies.
“In an effort to secure a larger share of the profits, medical centers are stepping up a publicity war that has suffered the honesty and savings of desperately ill people,” London told BuzzFeed News via email. He called the new report a “well-documented and well-argued case of ethical breaches in advertising practices.”
Not all hospitals agreed. TINA.org identified a variety of marketing materials, including videos, social media posts, and website posts, some of which were not actually advertisements, or even quite optimistic, a few argued. hospitals. (Dana-Farber did not respond to a request for comment.)
Memorial Sloan Kettering spokesperson Caitlin Hool pointed out that nearly half of the articles deemed “misleading” were first-person articles written by survivors for a hospital newsletter. They, in addition to the educational articles on the hospital’s website and unscripted patient videos, “tell the human story of cancer treatment in all its complexity,” Hool said via email.
And MD Anderson noted that in some of his blog posts, people discuss their struggles with cancer or the death of loved ones from it. “The content of this blog focuses on the journey of cancer patients,” said spokesperson Sussman. “It is often written by the patients themselves and includes information about side effects and the loss of loved ones, in addition to stories about survival.”
But Patten, executive director of TINA.org, said the documents still lack clear warnings about overall patient survival rates – and serve the same purpose as a TV commercial. “TINA.org’s belief is that this is marketing material used by the center to attract new patients,” she said.
And responsible advertising is possible, she said, citing a Facebook post from the NorthShore University HealthSystem in the Chicago area. The ad reads: “Currently, there is only a 6% chance of survival beyond 5 years for patients with pancreatic cancer. Five years after her diagnosis, Diana shares the story of a NorthShore University HealthSystem patient who overcame these obstacles. Patten also cited a blog post from the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University, which discussed the case of another patient with pancreatic cancer. “Pancreatic cancer is intimidating,” the article said, acknowledging the low survival rates one and five years after diagnosis.
“When providing this kind of anecdotal and atypical example, they should educate consumers about the typical and usual health pathway for this type of cancer,” Patten said. “And how they do it really depends on them.”