How medical centers get away with murder

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We've all seen the relentless TV spots for Cialis, Lipitor, Zoloft, etc. The FTC began lifting its restrictions on the ability of the drug companies to advertise in 1985 before almost completely giving way in 1997. As a result, in 2000, drug companies spent almost $16 billion to promote their products, $2.5 billion of which was spent on direct-to-consumer advertising like TV spots. It's one reason why we pay so much for new drugs; because they pay so much to make sure we learn about them.

Still, the FTC maintains at least one measure of control—they require proof that these claims are legit.

MDA

So it might make sense that the FTC hold up to the same standard non-profit hospitals and medical centers, but they don't. These places can make extraordinary claims, without anyone demanding that they back them up with proof. Curiously, these ads rely on individual testimonials, better known as anecdotes.

Anecodotal evidence is not evidence. Anecdotes carry almost no weight in scientific research, and for good reason.

FOR-PROFITS

This only means that the for-profit facilities, under much closer scrutiny, have gotten much smarter. This brings me to my least favorite cancer commercial, a frequently-run ad for the for-profit Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). Busted by the FTC in 1996 for overstepping their ability to treat cancer in their ads, they've shifted their tac and become much more clever on account of it. In this ad, a middle-aged woman named Peggy relates her story to the camera:

The doctor said to me, 'Peggy you don't understand—pancreatic cancer is inoperable and incurable … you've got two months to live.' It was like he was telling me, 'Go to the store'. There was no compassion. It was heartbreaking.

She says her sister suggested trying Cancer Treatment Centers of America, which leads to this:

I met with the [CTCA] doctor after the tests were done and asked, 'How long do I have?'

He said 'Peggy we did a lot of tests on you and I never saw one thing stamped on the bottom of your foot that said you were gonna die in two months. You have no expiration date.'

And I thought wow.

DO-OVER

The doctor said to me, 'Peggy you don't understand—pancreatic cancer is inoperable and incurable … you've got two months to live.' It was like he was telling me, 'Go to the store'. There was no compassion. It was heartbreaking.

The implication here is that the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer plays second fiddle to a doctor's bedside manner: What exactly is Peggy heartbroken about: The devastating diagnosis? The grim prognosis? No and no. She's distraught over the dispassionate, clinical manner of delivery! Were it up to Peggy, she might shoot the messanger.

I met with the [CTCA] doctor after the tests were done and asked, 'How long do I have?'

CTCA

He said 'Peggy we did a lot of tests on you and I never saw one thing stamped on the bottom of your foot that said you were gonna die in two months. You have no expiration date.'

And I thought wow.

Wow indeed.
1. Humans don't have expiration dates stamped on their feet. The real surprise would be if Peggy had one.
2. This doctor … What a line! Peggy is convinced it tells her everything when in fact it tells her nothing at all. What did those tests really say? Why doesn't it seem to matter?
3. We all may not have expiration dates, but we do have dates on which we will expire. There's an underhanded hint here that death isn't necessarily inevitable, which by itself is despicable.
3A. isn't there an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer actually does wake up with an expiration date on his foot?

CONCLUSIONS?

All we can reasonably conclude is that CTCA doctors have clever come-backs, when the crucial item of interest, never addressed, is this: What did they do to treat Peggy's cancer that her original doctor did not or would not do?

I guess you'll just have to develop cancer to find out.

Sources:
New York Times, Cancer Center Ads Use Emotion More than Fact. Natasha Singer, 18 December 2009

Deyo, R. Patrickm D. Hope or Hype: The Obsession with Medical Advances and the High Cost of False Promises. Amacam Books, NY. 2005

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