Do online hospital ads mislead patients?

Although patients' ability to seek healthcare information online is an important part of patient engagement, hospitals' online advertising often downplays the potential risks of procedures that providers offer, according to a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Alex John London, Ph.D., of Carnegie Mellon University and Yael Schenker, M.D., of the University of Pittsburgh analyzed online ads for transaortic valve replacement (TAVR) at the 317 hospitals in the U.S. that offer the procedure. All of the ads touted the minimally invasive procedure's benefits, but only one in four mentioned the risks, and fewer than one in 20 presented it in a quantified manner.

Indeed, hospitals' TAVR ads often seem deliberately crafted to disguise that they are promotional, London and Schenker found, with features such as infographics and statistics. "Although consumers who are bombarded by television commercials may be aware that they are viewing an advertisement," they write, "hospital websites often have the appearance of an education portal."

These findings, the authors write, demonstrate that the Internet is full of confusing, potentially biased or misleading information, and further regulation of advertising may be appropriate or necessary. Ensuring patient access to reliable, accurate information is vital, they write, citing a Pew Research Center survey that found 72 percent of adult Internet users sought health information online in the past 12 months, while more than 40 percent sought information on a specific procedure or treatment.

Patients are at similar risk for confusion from the various hospital-ranking services, which often study different measures and thus widely vary on which hospitals deliver the highest-quality care. Hospitals must also be mindful of what constitutes false advertising under the law, as promotions that create an expectation of more than what they offer could cross the line into outright falsehoods, FierceHealthcare previously reported.  

To learn more:
- read the study abstract
- here's Pew's fact sheet

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