Last week’s #HCSM chat focused on health care and advertising–an appropriate choice, given that the chat took place during the SuperBowl. If you read through the transcript, you will note that I am not a big fan of advertising in health care. My main concern is this: most health care decisions are difficult and involve balancing risks and benefits, but advertising is designed to craft easily-understood messages that influence behaviors. This is especially concerning to me in light of the rapidly increasing healthcare costs. Any advertising that encourages increased resource use and increases the costs of care (especially if the best available evidence does not necessarily support it) is inherently in conflict with ethical medical care. The more advertising we see for expensive meds that do not offer improved outcomes over older or generic meds, or for aggressive treatments that do not improve outcomes over conservative care, the more costs will continue to rise and quality of care will lag behind. Although physicians must order tests, recommend treatments, and prescribe medications, pressure to pursue more aggressive and costly care is enhanced by the effect of advertising on the public.
Having said that, I do think that there is a role for advertising in health care. There is one field where I think mass media communications/advertising strategies can benefit the greater good: public health. Public health practices focus on preventive care, risk reduction, and health promotion. Behavior changes at the individual level can prevent or lower the risk of developing disease or the complications of chronic illnesses. This benefits individuals’ health while also looking to reduce the costs of chronic disease management. Over time, this would stand to reduce health care spending overall and start bending the cost curve in a more sustainable direction.
Advertising works by influencing behavior. To make public health advertising successful, it would be necessary to both craft the right message and make it visible to the public during key times (prime time television? Super Bowl?). If public health campaigns were given the necessary public support (and the appropriate funding) to be successful, then that would be a health care advertising campaign we should support.