Cancer Centers Are Spending More On Ads, But That Doesn’t Mean Better Care

Jul 14, 2016

A new report tracking cancer center advertising found that spending more on ads doesn't equate to better care. Cancer center ads lack important information and rely heavily on emotional appeal, according to Yael Schenker of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Credit Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Cancer centers across the U.S. have more than tripled the amount spent on advertising in the last decade, but a new report finds that doesn't equate to better care.

The report by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Indiana University, published in JAMA Internal Medicine this week, found that between 2005 and 2014, 890 for-profit and nonprofit cancer centers increased their total advertising expenditures from $54 million to $173 million. 

The report shows only 20 of the 890 organizations tracked are responsible for 86 percent of advertisement spending. But that relative frequency of ads does not equate to better treatment, said Yael Schenker, the report's lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“More than half of the 20 cancer centers with the highest advertising spending in 2014 were not designated by the National Cancer Institute and three were not accredited by the Commission on Cancer,” Schenker said.

Schenker said the increase in spending is a result of the increase in media platforms over the years. Cancer centers are looking beyond television to online and mobile devices, she said.

The Cancer Treatment Centers of America is accredited by the Commission on Cancer, but not the National Cancer Institute. Schenker found it spent more money than any other cancer center on advertising in 2014.

“If there were a better way to (reach patients) beyond advertising, we would certainly look at that,” said Peter Yesawich, chief growth officer at Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

Yesawich said that investment in national media is the most efficient way to make patients and families aware of his company’s five national hospitals and available cancer treatments.

“It’s a very efficient vehicle for us to provide consumers, patients and their families with the latest information on diagnostics and treatment options,” Yesawich said. “The alternative is to allow these options to find their way through media to individuals who have a sense of immediacy.”

In 2014, more than 1.6 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Yesawich said many of those new patients are searching for information online, so the CTCA has focused on online advertising to help direct patients to necessary and helpful information.

Cancer cells featured in an ad by Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Credit Cancer Treatment Centers of America

“That’s a lot to communicate, but we find that advertising is a way that helps us reach and engage patients who have interest in learning more,” he said.

Though, Schenker said organizations and companies are capitalizing on a more competitive cancer marketplace. She said increasingly cancer treatment is provided by a small cluster of organizations that offer a range of services.

“It brings up the question of why these centers are advertising,” she said. “Is it to make patients locally aware of available services or is it to attract patients away from other centers?”

Prior to 1980, health care advertising was banned by the American Medical Association. Schenker and her colleagues looked at the effect of the rule’s repeal. One thing she found is that presenting medical information online could make it more difficult for audiences to separate science from advertisements.

Internet links in ads are intended to lead engaged consumers to online information, said Peter Yesawich of Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Credit Cancer Treatment Centers of America

“The concern has been raised that ads don’t present complete or balanced information,” she said. “So, there’s unanswered questions about how patients access that kind of information and the concern these advertisements could be misleading or could influence patients to pursue medical services that they don’t need.”

But Yesawich said advertising is an important tool for his organization.

“It’s a way for us to deliver messages to the marketplace that we think are particularly relevant and helpful,” he said.

Yesawich said the CTCA is also aware of patients who aren’t online, such as older patients who are more likely to receive cancer diagnoses. He said that’s where TV ads come into play. Though, Yesawich said the CTCA uses real patients who are unpaid and aren’t compensated, to provide accurate and meaningful content.

“I would like to think that anybody who was in this place would be respectful of the complexities when using this communication,” he said.

Ultimately the decision of where to seek care comes down to the individual and Schenker said she just wants patients to be able to make an informed decision. 

"The stories in these ads reflect what we hope for, not necessarily the experience of most patients," she said. "I would hope that most patients could make decisions about cancer treatment with full understanding of the facts.” 

Cancer Treatment Centers of America was formerly an underwriter for WESA and is a current underwriter of NPR