Several of the ads promote services of unclear health value to the public and, in some cases, seem to place the financial interests of the medical centres before the interests of the patients, researchers at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) conclude.

"We found it interesting that similar advertising practices by pharmaceutical companies have been criticised for creating demand for services and failing to present balanced information, but no one seemed to be turning the same critical eye on ads from academic medical centres,” said Dr. Robin Larson, lead author of the study.

The study examined marketing practices of 17 academic medical centres. The researchers interviewed each centre's marketing department and obtained all non-research-related print advertisements distributed during 2002.

They found that while 16 of the 17 academic medical centres advertise to attract patients, none have a formal process for reviewing the ads to assure balance and straightforwardness. Of the 122 ads that were aimed at attracting patients, the most common marketing strategy involved an emotional appeal to evoke feelings of fear, hope, or anxiety about a health risk.

The researchers also found that several of the advertisements promoted tests or services whose health benefits are unclear, and all but one of the ads for specific services neglected to note the potential harms or side effects of the treatments they were promoting.

"We are concerned that when potential patients read these ads, they may not realise that the underlying motivation may be to attract patients, not necessarily to promote the health of the public,” said Larson. "If they are going to advertise, we would like to see them promote evidence-based services or at least those likely to improve overall public health.”; Source: Dartmouth Medical School