Engaging, relevant and accurate: The 3 tenets of healthcare advertising

For as long as advertising has been around, entities across industries have made claims that can't always be backed up by fact. Over time, regulations developed to ensure the validity of print and digital advertising in many sectors, including healthcare. Now, however, some say advertising campaigns imply personalized medicine is more advanced than it really is, according to Modern Healthcare. This is detrimental to the goal of informing patients and caregivers in an engaging, relevant and accurate way and should act as a wake-up call for companies in the healthcare industry to ensure the validity of their communications.

First things first: What exactly is personalized medicine? The National Human Genome Research Institute defines it as "an emerging practice of medicine that uses an individual's genetic profile to guide decisions made in regard to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease." The glossary goes on to note that "knowledge of a patient's genetic profile can help doctors select the proper medication or therapy and administer it using the proper dose or regimen."

"The potential associated with personalized medicine is exciting."

The potential of personalized medicine is exciting, so much so that there has been a flurry of healthcare agency marketing activity surrounding it. Even President Barack Obama got in on the action by making reference to the field in his most recent State of the Union address.

The president pointed out that personalized medicine has had a positive effect on cystic fibrosis moments before announcing the launch of "a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes, and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier."

President Obama also asserted in a separate news conference that personalized medicine is a great opportunity, Modern Healthcare reported.

Ahead of the evidence?
In recent months, ads that tout the practice as a prospective medical game-changer have appeared on everything from public radio to magazines displayed at grocery store checkouts. After the first round of healthcare systems launched their campaigns, representatives from other institutions saw these and released their own, eager to attract the attention of patients and clinicians while simultaneously positioning themselves on the cutting edge of treatment trends, according to Modern Healthcare.

Some individuals, including Dr. James Evans, editor-in-chief of Genetics in Medicine and a professor of genetics and medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, believe the ads present personalized medicine as being further along in its development than it actually is.

"The science is not there," said Evans, as quoted by the media outlet. "The marketing folks are way ahead of the evidence."

Healthcare marketing claims need to be grounded in fact.Healthcare marketing claims need to be grounded in fact to inform and educate patients and caregivers.

Clarke Caywood, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, is of a similar opinion to Evans. He warned that exaggerated claims can be a deterrent to achieving the actual goal of informing and educating patients and caregivers, potentially leaving patients with the wrong idea about their circumstances and caregivers with misconceptions about the treatment options available.

"Any puffery or deception in healthcare is cruel and dangerous to the patient, family and our confidence in the health system," said Caywood, according to the news source.

Expanded healthcare advertising regulations likely on the horizon
As medical oncologist Dr. Stacy Gray from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute asserted, a big part of the problem is that this area of treatment and the healthcare marketing that accompanies it are largely unregulated.

"Regulation of the genetic testing industry is going to be inevitable ... because some of these tests have very serious implications for patients' and family members' health and for medical decision-making," she said, as quoted by the media outlet.

"Healthcare centers should self-regulate to avoid propagating misconceptions."

Speaking to the AAMC Reporter in 2011, Holli Salls, vice president of public relations, marketing and physician services at Northwestern, underscored the importance of truthful outreach - and her words still hold weight today.

"It's everybody's responsibility to make sure people aren't being misled, scared or made uncomfortable," she told the news source.

Given the current absence of guidelines and legislation, healthcare centers should self-regulate to avoid propagating misconceptions that could misinform patients and the caregivers about the treatment options that are out there. Professionals in this sector have a responsibility to adhere to what we call the three tenets of healthcare advertising by ensuring their marketing materials are engaging, relevant and, above all, accurate.