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Student researcher's work published in Annals of Internal Medicine

July 17, 2014

A study by an IU School of Medicine-South Bend student has attracted attention from national media outlets such as CNN, WebMD and Modern Health Care.

Laura Vater, a second-year student at IUSM-South Bend, is the lead author on a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine analyzing cancer center advertisements that emphasize fear and hope on television and in popular magazines.

Laura Vater

Laura Vater

“With these cancer center advertisements, patients are getting the rose-colored glasses version: ‘If you come to our center, you’re going to live,'" Vater said.

The paper presents evidence that cancer patients may have had the quality of their treatment altered before it begins, influenced by cancer center.

The study, titled "What Are Cancer Centers Advertising to the Public? A Content Analysis," argues that that cancer center marketing drives a demand for therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation through emotional messaging that is "long on happy endings or battle cries, but short on information" about treatment option risks and benefits, costs and potential alternatives.  

Although further research is needed, Vater said she is concerned that this sort advertisement may adversely impact on patients' decisions about treatments, and also may lead to inappropriate demand for services in hopes of a cure that may not be possible.

Vater developed the study before entering medical school as a student in the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. Her mentor was Yael Schenker, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

A significant amount of research exists on the impact drug company advertising has on patient-doctor relationships, but little or no research exists on the impact of cancer care advertising, according to Vater.

In conducting the study, Vater, Dr. Schenker and other researchers analyzed the advertising campaigns of the top 102 cancer centers as recognized by the National Cancer Institute. Among these centers, 85 percent use television advertising; 27 percent place ads in popular magazine. The research team reviewed hundreds of magazine ads and some 1,400 television commercials, ultimately analyzing the content of more than 400 video and print advertisements.

The advertisements often referenced specific cancer types, played on fears, evoked hope for survival and touted "aggressive treatment." Communications that should be part of the doctor-patient relationships, such as alternatives, costs, realistic outcomes and side effects, were rarely discussed.

Although the team acknowledged that emotional content is at the heart of all marketing, Vater said they were concerned these ads contributed to a previously documented disconnect between patients’ understanding of their disease and treatment, and physicians’ understanding. These "therapeutic misconceptions," as they are known, are often found at the end of life, when a physician is seeking ways to make a patient comfortable, and the patient is still expecting a cure.

In subsequent studies, Vater said she wants to determine whether and how cancer advertising influences patients, and how much cancer centers spend on advertising.

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