A 'Cruel Tool': Hospital Ads Offering False Hope for Desperate Patients

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


March 12, 2019

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

I am Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center.

How many of you have seen ads running in your community in which a patient comes forward and says, "Thank goodness for Hospital X. They gave me the personalized individual treatment that I needed to beat my cancer"? These ads are all over the place. Here in New York, I see them all the time, and they are broadcast around the region widely on radio and television. They usually [spotlight] a person looking very grateful who survived their cancer and is thanking the doctors in the hospital where that took place.

The problem is that those anecdotes and stories may not be giving a realistic picture to people who have serious, life-threatening cancers and other diseases. The narratives suggest that survival is, if not certain, then at least likely.

It's true that we have better tools to fight cancer and we have more weapons to use, like immunotherapy that targets particular parts of the body so that the immune system reacts more strongly. We can take CAR T cells out of the body and wash them and change them, and put them back in to fight cancer. But for many cancers, we do not have a lot more than we did a year or two or three ago. For many people, we do not have personalized treatments that are really going to help them at present.

I'm a big proponent of immunotherapy, CAR T cells, gene editing, and moving cancer treatments forward into the 21st century, and I know that they will do a lot of good. But it bothers me a lot when hospitals advertise and suggest, through anecdotes and narrative stories, that cures are out there for everyone.

Raising false hope is not what we should be doing for the very sick. This is not what we should be doing for those who are likely to die of a cancer that does not yet have high-tech treatment available. Honesty in advertising is important—not just because we do not want to ask people to spend money on longshots, but because false hope is a cruel thing to do for the very sick.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU. Thanks for watching.

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