According to a recent report from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), medical marketing spending in the United States has increased over the past decade, growing from $17.7 billion in 1997 to $29.9 billion in 2016. Advertising for health services played a large part in this growth.
As the report states, “Health service advertising, relatively uncommon 20 years ago, is now ubiquitous.”
Still, this growth in spending hasn’t been a smooth process. Issues in health care advertising, such as misleading ads, have prompted the advent of regulations from the American Medical Association (AMA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an effort to ensure that consumers are fully informed.
That’s why it’s so important for current medical and public health students to consider how marketing their services will impact future patients. By studying medical marketing now, they can develop a thorough understanding of the industry and be prepared to market their own services when they launch their careers.
“I want my students to learn the best marketing practices in health organizations and how they can do the best to promote their organizations without creating distrust among their patients and care providers,” says Dr. Sung-Yeon Park, associate professor of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. “A lot of times, the advertising specialists tell health care organizations that if they target patients, they will be happy, but that is often not the case.”
Health care marketing is more nuanced than that. It requires a delicate approach to meet certain moral and ethical standards.
“Marketing is something need to be aware of,” Dr. Park says. “It isn’t all about how they treat their patients or how you run the organization where ethics apply. Marketing ethics are really important, and they have a direct impact on their consumers.”
Here are the ways in which future health care professionals can impact marketing, making it more trustworthy and dependable for their patients.
Educate Patients and Build Trust
Health care marketing doesn’t just help medical professionals find new patients. It’s also a powerful tool for educating consumers and building trust. In a study of 323 online health service advertisements in Las Vegas and Reno, Dr. Park and her collaborators found that patients were central figures in these advertisements. Many ads claimed patient-centeredness and convenience and addressed patients directly using second-person pronouns. The study will be presented at the Nevada Public Health Association in September.
“The marketing budget can be used to educate patients; that is the type of promotion patients actually like,” Dr. Park says. “It is a long-term relationship where social media and advertisement can be used to build trust rather than damage trust.”
For example, studies show that college students are eager to hear from their doctors — rather than just from dispensaries and advocacy organizations — about marijuana legalization and usage.
“I think medical organizations can play the important role of distributing more balanced information about [marijuana legalization and usage],” Dr. Park says.
By taking the initiative to educate consumers about the advantages and disadvantages of certain products, health care professionals can build trust with their patients. They can help patients cut through the noise from third-party vendors and provide clinical, unbiased recommendations for treatments and services.
Keep Advertising Partners Informed
Marketing companies need to be aware of the ethics involved in medical advertising, and health care professionals may need to help them do so.
“People who do the marketing for clinical advertising are not aware that this product is different from the other products they are working on, like diapers or any nonmedical product,” Dr. Park says. “The marketers are not often trying to deceive people; they are just using the same strategies that work in other areas of mass marketing.”
“Nobody wants to hurt anyone,” Dr. Park says, “but they do so through a thoughtless process that could be applied to any product or service. It hurts the health care system.”
Develop Internal Review Processes
One of the most important lessons future health care professionals can learn is the importance of developing internal review processes for their marketing materials. This way, they can ensure that their messaging is accurate and not misleading to patients. Still, these review processes aren’t as common as they should be among many health care facilities, such as university hospitals.
“You would think [large university hospitals] would hold closely to ethics, but an earlier study reported that none of the top university hospitals had an internal review process in place for patient recruitment advertisements” Dr. Park says.
As a result, many of these hospitals promote more profitable procedures instead of day-to-day health care services. In another study of those 323 online ads — to be presented at the Nevada Public Health Association in September — Dr. Park and her collaborators found that only 15% of online health service ads provide cost information, 40% provided information on insurance, and 11% provided financing options.
“They tend to ignore services that don’t make money — including widespread issues such as diabetes care — unless expensive technology is involved,” Dr. Park says. “None of the advertisements, or only a few, have some price information on health insurance coverage or finance information.”
The JAMA report corroborates these findings: “Given their social mission, academic medical centers could commit to better self-regulation, for example, requiring internal independent review of advertising, similar to institutional review board evaluation and approval of research proposals.”
Health care professionals should self-regulate and hold themselves accountable, building and adhering to internal review processes for their marketing materials. Otherwise, they risk misleading patients and developing unethical marketing strategies, such as solely promoting expensive services.
Include Risks and Relevant Data
Many health care providers are guilty of running ads that only tout the benefits of their services or don’t include contextual data — effectively misleading patients.
In their study, Dr. Park and her collaborators found that 36% of online health service advertisements suggested good patient outcomes, but none provided evidence to back up those claims. Additionally, only 12% of ads referred to safety.
The JAMA report found that hospitals often take this approach.
“Some advertisements for cancer centers have emphasized hope and fear without mentioning treatment harms or quantifying benefit,” the report states. “Hospital websites have prominently advertised new technologies … often with unsubstantiated benefit claims without noting risks or alternatives.”
These overly emotional ads don’t just shield patients from information about risks; they can convince people they have health issues without actually knowing the full story.
To truly serve and protect patients, medical advertisements should provide all necessary information. A risk-filled ad may not seem attractive or click-worthy, but it can be lifesaving.
Understand Certain Regulatory Laws
The history of health care marketing is rife with regulations, yet many misleading marketing strategies still slip through the cracks.
Here are some measures that could help guide health care marketing strategies and protect patients:
- The AMA has already issued a warning to cosmetic surgeons about misusing testimonials, but many exaggerated or misleading testimonials still exist. The AMA could expand or clarify this warning to ensure that patient testimonials meet certain standards.
- The Federal Trade Commission could create guidelines for monitoring and maintaining quality among health care advertisements. As the JAMA report states, “The sheer volume of organizations and individuals engaging in health services marketing and the wide range of services that can be promoted prevent systematic monitoring, and no explicit guidance on when such advertising becomes deceptive exists.”
- According to the JAMA report, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations could include “responsible advertising” on its checklists for accreditation.
- The FDA could follow up on how approved drugs and treatments are being advertised. As Angie Botto-van Bemden, director of osteoarthritis programs at the Arthritis Foundation, told Kaiser Health News, “The Food and Drug Administration has approved stem cell therapy for only a few specific uses — such as bone marrow transplants for people with leukemia. But hundreds of clinics claim to use these cells taken from umbilical cord blood to treat disease. Many patients have no idea that these stem cell therapies are unapproved.”
Medical professionals should stay aware of these regulations and find opportunities to support certain measures. If they can help ensure that medical marketers are held to select ethical and legal standards, they can build a more trustworthy medical marketing landscape for themselves and their patients.
Do Your Research
Health care marketing is still a relatively nascent field. As it continues to evolve, it’s crucial for future health care professionals to remain informed about necessary regulations and best practices.
Dr. Park, for example, looks forward to continuing her research.
“My current program is moving beyond cosmetic surgery, and I’ll be looking at health care services advertisements in general,” she says. “That includes cosmetic surgery as well as other health care, such as hospitals and clinics.”
Going forward, Dr. Park hopes to see additional research and studies around health care marketing, yielding more educated professionals and patients.
“We want to use marketing in a way that will let patients know the available services and options in the area,” Dr. Park says. “Researchers need to provide guidance and give criticisms in terms of how medical professionals conduct their marketing.”
It’s never too early for current medical and public health students to begin studying and understanding the medical marketing field. Considering the field’s many nuances and the number of regulations involved, it’s crucial for students to conduct ongoing research about how to launch trustworthy, informative and honest marketing initiatives for their future patients.
To remain educated on these issues, future health care professionals can refer to medical journals such as as JAMA and ask their professors for guidance.
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