Don't Let Marketing Language Mislead Patients

Anna Webster, 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.
Anna Webster Questions? Comments? Story ideas? Anna Webster, Online Content Coordinator for HealthLeaders Media, can be reached at
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