Consumer group: Top U.S. cancer centers air misleading ads

November 20, 2018

Some of the country’s biggest and most prestigious cancer treatment centers are using misleading testimonials that feature atypical results to promote care at their facilities, according to a watchdog report by  the nonprofit consumer group Truth in Advertising.

Out of 48 cancer centers, 90%—among them MD Anderson in Houston, Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, Dana-Farber in Boston, and Moffitt in Tampa, Florida—used “deceptively promoting atypical patient testimonials,” according to the report, “Deceptive Marketing of Hope,” released in late October.

And at the very top of the list was  Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a for-profit hospital headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, that is the top-spender on cancer center advertising and marketing, according to Kantar Media.

Indeed, the report found, even as the U.S. cancer death rate has declined, advertising spending by cancer centers has increased—exponentially. Between 2005 and 2014, the amount spent by U.S. cancer centers on advertising soared 320%, from $54 million in 2005 to $173 million in 2014. Today, there are more than 1,200 accredited cancer centers competing against each other for patients, who pay billions of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses for cancer treatment every year.

The study found that “more than 700 testimonials featuring patients with cancer types that have a less than 50%t five-year survival rate that have been deceptively used in marketing materials to advance the narrative, either explicitly or implicitly, that treatment at a particular cancer center will provide patients with a therapeutic advantage—allowing them to beat the odds and live beyond five years. In each of the 700-plus instances, the cancer center failed to clearly and conspicuously disclose what is typical for such patients, that is, a 50 % chance or greater of dying within five years.

As just one example, in a video testimonial posted on the Memorial Sloan Kettering website, patient Carl [ast name withheld] shares his gratitude for the medical team who saved his life by successfully treating his pancreatic cancer diagnosed in 2009. “I never once felt like a number; I always felt like a person,” he said.

The five-year survival rates for someone with pancreatic cancer is only 8.5%—a fact not mentioned in the emotional video.

As a result of these findings, Truth in Advertising has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against CTCA, a repeat FTC offender, and has put the other 42 cancer centers on notice that they are engaging in deceptive marketing practices.

“Cancer patients and their families [are] facing devastating odds of survival and have a right to know the truth,” said  Truth in advertising Executive Director Bonnie Patten. “To sway this uniquely susceptible population’s decisions as to where they should seek treatment by exploiting false hope is simply not acceptable.”

Research contact: @TruthinAd

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