Cancer Center Advertising Triples Over Last Decade

US cancer centers spent $173 million on advertising in 2014.

In 2014, there were 890 cancer centers that spent $173 million for advertising, while just 20 centers accounted for 86% of spending, reported a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

From 2005 to 2014, cancer centers promoted their services as part of a dramatic increase in advertising spending. The study revealed that a majority of spending is being done by for-profit organizations.

One for-profit firm with a national network of 5 hospitals, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, spent $101.7 million, which is 59% of the total. Meanwhile, 25 of the nation’s National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer centers spent no money on advertising, while those that did spent less than $4000.

Of the 20 centers that accounted for 86% of spending, 17 were Commission on Cancer-accredited, 9 were NCI-designated centers, and 5 were for-profit institutions.

“Spending on cancer center advertising has more than tripled since 2005, and a small percent of cancer centers are responsible for the majority of spending,” said first study author Laura Vater, MPH. “Patients should be aware that cancer centers that spend the most on advertising my not necessarily provide the highest quality of care.”

In a previous study conducted by Vater and colleagues in 2014, researchers analyzed the content of cancer center advertising, concluding that “clinical advertisements by cancer centers frequently promote cancer therapy with emotional appeals that evoke hope and fear while rarely providing information about risks, benefits, costs, or insurance availability.”

For the new study, researchers used data from Kantar Media to track advertising and calculate expenditures. They also obtained data for newspaper, magazine, billboard, internet, radio, and television advertising.

Researchers used the Consumer Price Index to adjust expenditures to 2014 US dollars. Cancer centers were classified as NCI-designated, accredited by the Commission on Cancer, not-for-profit versus for-profit, and by location.

The results of the study showed that the spend in all of the advertising categories increased from 2005 to 2014. The spending was led by television advertising, where in 2005, $27 million was spent, which jumped to a peak of $107 million in 2011.

Although television spending declined somewhat after 2011, it still stood at a whopping $87 million in 2014. Findings for print media spending showed an increase from $11 million to $34 million, while internet advertising rose from $300,000 in 2005 to $9 million in 2014.

“More work is needed to understand the effects of cancer center advertising on the web, as more and more people search for health information online,” said senior study author Yael Schenker, MD. “One concern is that when advertisements are listed at the top of internet search results, (a) patient may have trouble finding and recognizing good information.”

After Cancer Treatment Centers of America, the next biggest advertisers in 2014 were MD Anderson Cancer Center, which spent $13.9 million, followed by the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center at $9.1 million.

The study authors noted that a reason the expenditure calculations may be low is because advertising in cancer-specific magazines were not included, and neither was advertising by affiliated organizations designed to encourage charitable donations.