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Should Hospital Websites be Labeled for Consumers as Advertising?  

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

hospital advertisingHospital advertising is in the spotlight, and we wonder how your facility would stand-up to the challenging ideas we found in the news recently. The first is about price transparency and publishing cost information in ads for patients.

The second notion proposes that hospital websites should be labeled as advertising—with the implication that if it’s “advertising,” it may not be “reliable.”

Read on, and please let us know what you think about these two concepts.

In our experience, hospital and health system advertising has largely lived up to high standards for quality and integrity. In many markets, hospitals are major advertisers with near-constant visibility in the media. And, considering the personal nature of health care delivery and the ethical codes of providers and other professionals, the public and the industry expect and deserve nothing less.

With that in mind, two items about healthcare and hospital advertising crossed our industry-news radar recently that just might push medical advertising into new (and even higher) territory. We wonder how your advertising squares with these ideas...or not.

price transparencyShould doctors and hospitals advertise their rates?

In his weekly column in the Toledo Blade, retired surgeon Dr. S. Amjad Hussain wrote:

“In a refreshing move, the Toledo Clinic, a 175-physician group took out a recent full-page advertisement in The Blade that compared laboratory and radiology rates it charges with those charged by ProMedica and Mercy Health Partners, the two main players in the Toledo health-care market. There is a gross inequality in charges between the Toledo Clinic and others.

“To my knowledge, it is the first time a local medical facility has advertised its rates for laboratory tests. I wish this practice would extend to the rates for all other services in our area.”

In his article, Dr. Hussain—a proponent of single-payer universal health coverage, argues that publicly revealing rates should extend beyond lab and radiology rates and include the rates for all other services in our area. “I would like to see all area hospitals advertise their services with a fixed price tag,” he writes. “The concept can be extended to all patients who enter a hospital. They would know up front how much a health-care procedure would cost. There would not be any surprises.”

Do you agree? How would you respond to Dr. Hussain’s commentary?

Should hospital websites be labeled as advertising?

Meanwhile—shifting a couple hundred miles east, from Toledo, OH to Pittsburgh, PA—Carnegie Mellon's Alex John London, PhD, and Pitt's Yael Schenker, MD, MAS, raise questions of ethics and impact online health information, specifically hospital advertisements.

In a commentary published in JAMA Internal Medicine titled Risks of Imbalanced Information on US Hospital Websites, Doctors London and Schenker reason that valuable online health information may be hard to identify as advertising amid a growing number of online medical advertisements.

The authors observe that 72 percent of adult Internet users looked online for health information in the past 12 months, and 43 percent reported searching for information about a specific medical treatment or procedure.

“Valuable data and tools—including hospital quality ratings, professional treatment guidelines, and patient decision aids—are increasingly available via the Internet and may help patients facing decisions about where to seek care or whether to undergo a medical procedure.” But, how reliable is that information and what are the ethical implications?

"The marketing objective of selling services by making them seem attractive to consumers can create tensions or outright conflict with the ethical imperative of respect for persons, since the latter requires that patients make medical decisions in light of balanced information about the full range of risks and benefits associated with their care," according to London in a university news article.

“To begin to fix the risk to patients seeking medical information online, London and Schenker recommend to clearly label hospital websites as advertisements; allocate resources to created balanced online informational tools; and focus future attention on not only the content of health care advertising but its impact.”

Would you agree that hospital websites are advertising or that hospital advertising should be labeled as such for greater clarity? Is hospital website information reliable and unbiased? We welcome your comments.

Lonnie Hirsch

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