Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why hospital ads are sickening

I picked up The New York Times Magazine early this morning, casually opened it up, and there was a two-page ad for Lenox Hill Hospital with the head, "We had cardiologists before the city had arteries." A clever line by a talented copywriter. And the kind that still gets me all bent out of shape. The ads from the pharmaceutical companies and the hospitals that have been running for years, beckoning us to be narcotized and then treated. The competition for our bodies has gottten me unglued.

The ad might as well have been entitled, "Thinking about having your next heart attack? Why not have it at Lenox Hill?" Have another greasy, high-cholesterol dinner, and just call us and make an appointment! Before the media blitz of the last several years, elective medicine was merely word-of-mouth referral, and it worked pretty well. You went to your primary care physician, and if you had a problem, he or she referred you to a specialist. We didn't need medical institutions trumpeting their specialties and list of outstanding doctors. As for an emergency, I'll tell you this: if I'm lying flat in an ambulance and conscious enough to look at the heart monitor and my pulse is ebbing, I don't really care which hospital I end up in.

When I had serious problem with my aorta that required major surgery nearly 25 years ago, I was maniacal in due diligence. I sought out the top three surgeons in New York City that had the most experience in dealing with my condition (which although not extremely rare, was nonetheless unusual in adults). I interviewed all three extensively before making a decision. I didn't need a half dozen hospitals beckoning me for my business through advertising.

In 2008, the last year for which I could find a quick stat, medical advertising reached $1.23 billion, double the spending of 1999. Well, a billion dollars doesn't seem like much any more, but that kind of money would have bought a lot of health care for needy kids, and others who've lost jobs and no longer can afford health insurance. That's a billion-plus down the tubes every year, and probably a lot more now.

Think about it. Every time you see an ad for a hospital, it's money not spent on doctors, nurses, aides, and the facility itself. We should be ashamed at this behavior.

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