Recent guidance outlines ethical concerns when cancer centers advertise directly to the public.1 The authors recommend these centers ensure fair and balanced promotion of cancer services, avoid exaggeration of claims, and provide data and statistics to support direct and implied assertions of treatment success.

Ongoing ethical concerns have been raised about cancer center marketing. A Truth in Advertising investigation focused on cancer centers using atypical patient testimonials in advertisements.2,3

“Before cancer center marketing is published, it should be reviewed by those familiar with medical ethical requirements and applicable advertising laws, which are meant to protect consumers,” says Laura Smith, JD, Truth in Advertising’s legal director. The authors of one paper studied how to ensure advertisements do not take advantage of vulnerable patients.4

“Hospital ethicists should work with administrators, clinicians, and the communications office to encourage and enforce a commitment to responsible advertising,” says Steven Woloshin, MD, the paper’s co-author and co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute.

Woloshin says ethicists at cancer centers can help ensure ethical advertising by encouraging inclusion of balanced information about benefits and harms of tests and treatments. Cancer centers should establish explicit guidance for responsible marketing and prohibit the advertising of unproven or experimental therapies. Finally, Woloshin suggests formally testing marketing messages and submitting them for independent review.

“Just like the IRB reviews ads to recruit patients into trials, an entity could review ads targeting prospective patients for treatment at the center,” Woloshin notes. The goal is to “ensure they are not misleading and do not generate false hope.”

REFERENCES

  1. Hlubocky FJ, McFarland DF, Spears PA, et al. Direct-to-consumer advertising for cancer centers and institutes: Ethical dilemmas and practical implications. Am Soc Clin Oncol Educ Book 2020;40:1-11.
  2. Truth in Advertising. Cancer care: The deceptive marketing of hope. Oct. 22, 2018.
  3. Truth in Advertising. Cancer center advertising: When consumer education and regulatory complaints aren’t enough. June 3, 2020. https://bit.ly/3aEEfju
  4. Schwartz LM, Woloshin S. Cancer center advertising — Where hope meets hype. JAMA Intern Med 2016;176:1068-1070.