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Don't Let Marketing Language Mislead Patients

Anna Webster, for HealthLeaders Media, June 8, 2011

Marketing campaigns are routinely challenged to promote a hospital's services and capabilities without overstating the benefits or understating the risks. When the manufacturer's materials are being used to market a product or service, patient education is at risk.

We've all chuckled over the litany of negative health consequences speedily read at the end of drug ads on TV, over a backdrop of incongruously positive visuals. Are marketers telling patients what they want to hear while effectively communicating the possible negative consequences?

A study from Johns Hopkins Journal for Healthcare Quality reports that hospital websites promoting robotic surgery largely ignore the risks associated with the procedures.

About four in 10 hospital websites in the U.S. promote the use of robotic surgery "touting its clinical superiority despite a lack of scientific evidence that robotic surgery is any better than conventional operations," the study states.

Here's the kicker: 73% of the reviewed websites used manufacturer-provided materials to promote robotic surgery. Many hospital websites even link directly to the manufacturer's website.

"This is a really scary trend," said Marty Makary, MD, associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a statement. "We're allowing the industry to speak on behalf of hospitals and make unsubstantiated claims."

We often hear about the positive effects of robotic surgery, which Johns Hopkins researchers call into question:

  • Better cancer outcomes
  • Shorter recovery
  • Less pain
  • Superiority --- Superior to what? The answer is undefined, Makary says. The marketing does not specify if robotic surgery is being compared to the standard of care, which is laparoscopic surgery, or to open surgery.
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2 comments on "Don't Let Marketing Language Mislead Patients"


Kris Beldin (6/10/2011 at 4:40 PM)
Great article. It is a real concern that many of us as consumers/patients don't think about, particularly when it is a hospital doing the marketing. I hear ads for robotic surgery as you mentioned and I too come away thinking it's a great procedure with very few side effects or risks. As a PR person for a healthcare provider it has been eye opening for me to understand the potential risks of a great story I want to pitch. I always have to remember that we are liable for any claims we make in our stories or pitches – and it's a big difference from when I worked in the tech space, while we had to be accurate and honest, the same liabilities just weren't there. Thanks for the good article.

Simon Sikorski, M.D. Twitter @medmarketingcoe (6/10/2011 at 7:02 AM)
This is a great article and very timely advice. Health care providers, hospitals, and medical organizations should really pay attention. Most of the time the issues identified in this article are due to the lack of involvement of the health care providers. Moving forward their voices are expected in marketing communications, education, CME, etc. Don't just rely on PR & Marketing departments. Get your health care providers involved.