Medical Advertising: Educational or Promotional?

What's the point of marketing medical procedures directly to patients?

benjamin sTone (Flickr Creative Commons)
Medical Advertising: Educational or Promotional?
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Medical Advertising: Educational or Promotional?

Driving on I-84 in Hartford, have you seen a billboard from Hartford Hospital. It's the one that asks, "What’s scarier -- a colonoscopy or cancer?"

What’s the point of an ad like that? Does it inform us? Does it freak us out?

Rexford Santerre is a finance professor and healthcare management at the UConn School of Business. He says the ultimate test would be to see whether advertising improves our health.

But that’s pretty hard to do. So here’s how economists think about it.

“If advertising leads to higher prices and lower utilization, lower quality, then that’s the 'bad guy' theory," said Santerre. "But if advertising leads to lower prices, more utilization, and improved quality, then that’s the 'good guy' theory.”

Bad guys, good guys -- how does healthcare advertising affect the decisions you make? Are you going to run out and get a colonoscopy because a billboard says you should?

We’ll talk with hospital officials, the state’s health care advocate Victoria Veltri, Dr. Michael Krinsky from the Connecticut State Medical Society, and Phil Galewitz who is a reporter with Kaiser Health News. 



I too like the billboard. It

I too like the billboard. It does what it's supposed to do: get you thinking. People get freaked out about colonoscopies. But a colonoscopy may prevent you from getting cancer, something to really get freaked out about. I once heard a cardiolgist say, "you can make time for exercise now, or make time for heart disease later." That doesn't mean that everyone who doesn't exercise will get heart disease, but there is a definite link. Marketing that enourages people to take responsibiliy for their own health should be encouraged.

False dichotomy

Posing a choice between two fears is probably ineffective and in this case the choice is a false one. The billboard implies that if you don't have a colonoscopy you will have cancer. According to the NIH website, 95 percent of Americans will never have colon or rectal cancer. During the recommended testing years ages 50-70, 98 percent of men and almost 99 percent of women will not have colorectal cancer. The ad also implies that if you have a colonoscopy you will not have cancer or cancer death. Though lucky individuals who are screened at the right time by a competent doctor and receive the right treatment will undoubtedly benefit, as a group asymptomatic people who receive screening colonoscopies have about the same rates of colorectal cancer and mortality as those who do not. Recent studies indicate that extremely (and perhaps atypically) thorough removal of polyps reduces--though certainly does not eliminate--cancer incidence in coming years. A truthful ad would suggest a potentially vast boon for a tiny percentage of participants. It works for lotteries.

Email from Steve

I wanted to say that I disagree from a marketing perspective the the billboard is not educational. The suggestion to be more specific "Are you over 55..." is not necessary. Does Geico say "Are you under 30..."? No, they have a cute gecko and funny commercials or billboards that target a specific market. I am 25 and low risk the billboard may cue me to ask questions to find out my risk level but it is not telling me I will die if I don't get a colonoscopy. One final point and rule for billboard marketing is that a billboard need to be read without reading... In other words you need to hook the person without then taking the time to read it and they need to know where to get more info when not driving. From a purely marketing perspective this hits the mark , it tells you the problem and tells you where to get the info(Hartford Hospital).

Facebook comment from Michael

I'm with Jane on this one. That add addresses the irrationality of the fears that keep us from making healthy choices. I truly have friends that won't get colonoscopies, and perhaps something like this will wake them up.

Facebook comment from Jane

My mother died of colon cancer, and I agree completely with the sentiment of the ad. Billboards, however, are a blight on the landscape. But that's another discussion.

Facebook comment from Mike

there are a few billboards about robotic surgery, suggesting that the robot is doing the procedure. That's a little skewed from reality.

Email from Michelle

I am a 52 year old white female.

I LOVED the billboard!

I want more information to help me manage my own healthcare because my dr does not have the time to educate me!

My husband had colonoscopy at 48 and was diagnosed with t2 rectal cancer. This saved his life. We are so efucated during this process and now understand the importance of early diagnosis! We need more of this.

The comment about billboards on i84 focusing on white suburbia this is ridiculous!!!! Education is education! Any way to get the word out is valid!

We need to be talking about outcomes and preventative medicine!
Yes!!!!! Colonoscopy a are scary!!!!

Facebook comment from Alison

"I just noticed the billboard yesterday and found it really weird. For one thing, research is finding that colonoscopies have been "oversold."

Facebook comment from Thomas

The direct marketing of Pharmaceuticals to consumers is banned in almost every developed country, save for the US and New Zealand, which is considering a ban. I think that it's very foolish of us to allow drug companies to advertise to directly to consumers.

Email from Barbara

I think billboard is brilliant. One could be cynical and say its a money making venture - but my pal Joni A Mayer PhD professor in the school of public Health at san Diego State univ spent her career positively affecting cancer awareness with ad programs that made public aware of skin cancer checks and prevention and most recently was the catalyst for laws banning tanning booths and/or restricting underage users.

I can see that billboard out

I can see that billboard out my office window. I hate it! I don't want to think about colons every minute of the work day!