Investigative Report

Desperation Games: Cancer-Treatment Centers

When it comes to finding the best cancer treatment, you shouldn’t rely on survival rates or other marketing claims that treatment facilities tout.

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Cancer patients don’t need the added stress of navigating a marketing minefield that’s designed to convince them which cancer-treatment facility (including hospitals) is suited to deliver the best treatment. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what many patients encounter at a time when they already are emotionally vulnerable.

However, the worst part about the information that cancer-treatment facilities use to distinguish their treatments from that of other facilities is that much of what’s touted can be misleading or has the potential to steer patients down a costly and more time-consuming path, experts tell Consumers Digest.

Of course, the claims that a cancer-treatment facility makes might seem like a boon to desperate cancer patients, because they appears to provide the tools that patients need to beat a disease that ranks as the No. 2 killer in the United States behind heart disease. However, the 21 health-care-industry experts and cancer-treatment specialists whom we interviewed make it clear that all of the claims that cancer-treatment facilities make about survival rates and many of the claims that they make about how their new technologies provide superior treatment are exaggerated or unsubstantiated. Furthermore, the advertising claims that are made by most cancer-treatment facilities are unregulated and unpoliced, which means that facilities can manipulate facts without any consequences.

“A lot of the marketing I see is lying to the consumer, and I don’t know of anything lower than lying to a poor consumer dying of or suffering from a deadly disease,” says Dr. Otis Brawley of Emory University, who is the author of “How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America.”

The problem might get worse before it gets better. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) puts a premium on determining which medical treatments have the best outcomes, which, as we explain later, means that, for the first time, 11 selected cancer-treatment facilities will have to report treatment data to the federal government. Although such measures are designed to create more transparency, they might have unintended consequences. Other facilities that aren’t required to report data might seize the opportunity to publish data on their own terms that aren’t as reliable as what the federal government requires from the 11 facilities, experts say.     

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In addition, American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that cancer could become the leading cause of death in the United States by as early as 2015, which we believe has the potential to fuel an increase in cancer-treatment-facility marketing. Plus, with some of the most high-profile cancer-treatment facilities opening branches around the country, competition for patients is increasingly fierce.

“With Obama’s health-care reform, we are going to see more and more information coming our way about who can deliver care effectively, and it is long overdue,” says Arthur Caplan, who is the director of medical ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. We want the people publishing it in scientific peer-reviewed journals, not making it up in the marketing department, he says.

SURVIVAL MARKETING. Cancer-treatment facilities’ use of survival-rate data to market their treatment is a new trend. It’s designed to convince patients that they have a better shot of beating cancer if they’re treated at a particular facility. Cancer-treatment facilities publish the survival rate of their patients for a particular cancer and compare it with a national or a state database. All sizes of cancer-treatment facilities play the survival-marketing game, from small community hospitals to respected big hitters of cancer care.

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