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Cancer Center Ads Focus on Emotion More Than Facts?

Researchers say it's not clear whether this sways patients when making treatment decisions
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, May 27, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- TV and magazine ads for U.S. cancer centers are heavy on emotional appeal, but light on the facts that patients need to know, a new study finds.

In an analysis of more than 400 ads that ran nationwide, researchers found that few gave objective information on cancer treatment benefits or risks. Instead, the ads mainly used emotional appeals -- relying on patient testimonials and general messages of hope.

The problem, experts said, is that the ads could potentially mislead cancer patients and their families.

Whether that's actually happening, however, is unclear.

"This study only analyzed the content of the ads," explained senior researcher Dr. Yael Schenker, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

"This is a first step," Schenker said. "An important next step would be to look at whether there are effects on patients."

Another question, she said, is how well advertising claims correlate with a cancer center's actual quality of care.

The study, published online May 26 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at ads for 102 cancer centers that ran in consumer magazines and on TV in 2012.

Most ads -- 88 percent -- promoted cancer treatment, while some talked about cancer screening (18 percent) or "supportive services," such as psychological therapy or nutrition counseling (13 percent).

Most ads used emotional appeals, invoking hope for survival, rather than giving information about treatments. Only 2 percent of the ads tried to "quantify" the potential benefits of a treatment or mentioned the potential risks. Just 5 percent talked about costs.

Instead, Schenker's team found, nearly half of the ads used patient testimonials, and none mentioned the results that the "typical" patient could expect.

A cancer specialist who was not involved in the research agreed that studies now need to see whether these ads sway patients' choices.

"The next step would be to ask a cohort of cancer patients if they are aware of cancer center advertisements, and try to assess if their exposure to the ads has affected their feelings and behavior," said Dr. Gregory Abel, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

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