Marketing for disease awareness, health services—and, yes, drugs—skyrocketed over 20 years

Ascension Health's advertisement focused on telling patients how easily its primary care offerings can fit into their busy day-to-day lives. (Ascension)

From disease awareness campaigns to direct-to-consumer drug marketing and ads from hospitals and doctors' offices for the latest healthcare services, medical marketing is big business. 

And over the past 20 years, the amount of money spent marketing medicine has skyrocketed, reaching $29.9 billion in 2016, according to an analysis published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

That's up nearly 70% from spending of $17.7 billion in 1997.

Most of that spending in 2016, just more than $20 billion, was spent marketing to health professionals.

However, at about $10 billion, direct-to-consumer marketing was a fast-growing segment for health companies, advertising making up 32% of the overall spending on marketing in 2016 compared to about 11% in 1997.

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  • Spending on health services advertising by organizations like hospitals, dental centers, addiction centers and home health services increased the most of any other direct-to-consumer advertising, skyrocketing 435% from $542 million to $2.9 billion.
  • Drug companies increased direct-to-consumer advertising spending by more than four times, from $1.3 billion (or 79,000 ads) in 1997 to $6 billion (or 4.6 million ads) in 2016.
  • Drug companies increased their spending on marketing to consumers about the diseases that are treated by their drugs from $177 million to $430 million.
  • Spending on consumer-targeted ads for laboratory tests, such as genetic testing, saw an uptick from $75.4 million to $82.6 million. The analysis notes that the overall number of ads jumped from 14,100 to more than 255,000 in that time.

Over the same time period stretching from 1997 to 2016, regulatory oversight of all that medical marketing was largely stagnant and "remains relatively limited," the authors of the study wrote.

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"Increased medical marketing efforts reflect a convergence of scientific, economic, legal and social forces," wrote Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice researchers Lisa Schwartz, M.D., and Steven Woloshin, M.D., who were the authors of the analysis. "As more drugs and devices and medical advances convert once-fatal diseases into chronic illnesses and with renewed interest in prevention for some diseases, the marketing of tests, treatments and services has expanded," they wrote.