When is Health Care Advertising Acceptable?

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.


2 Responses to When is Health Care Advertising Acceptable?

  1. Nicole Bump says:

    Seems like you are saying that you support the use of advertisements for social marketing campaigns (aka behavior change campaigns), but you do not support using advertisements to market health care organizations.

    The problem is that most social marketing campaigns are designed and implemented by nonprofits with very limited budgets–they often cannot afford TV commercials at all, let alone during the Super Bowl.

    In an ideal world, of course, the non-profits with aims of promoting health and wellness would have bigger wallets. In your opinion, how can they best use limited financial (and human) resources to get their messages out?

    • richmonddoc says:


      I would say that I’m not so much opposed to advertising health care *organizations* so much as medications, aggressive interventions, etc.

      It’s true that non-profits might have limited resources to communicate with the public, but a few thoughts:

      –As a condition of using the public airwaves, one could argue that broadcast media should air public health messages in a way that actually reaches the public. Not at 4 a.m., not in a “CBS Cares” sort of way, but during prime time and when the audience is engaged.

      –Not all public health messages need to come from small non-profits. NIH, CDC, etc could all craft effective public health campaigns.

      –Finally (and more central to this blog, perhaps), it would seem that a clever campaign could leverage social media techniques (Twitter, Facebook, etc) to distribute information. But that’s a bit beyond my scope here.

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