Cancer ads: The power of anecdotes over hard data ……

Yesterday, we channeled the results of a study that found that patients facing major health challenges often select their course of treatment based on isolated success stories they might hear rather than hard data.

Specifically, the study found that when a success story was used to “validate” a low success rate treatment, patients would ignore or dismiss the hard scientific data and be swayed by the anecdote – even if the case history was a remote outlier, not a general case.

Deep in selective attention mode, my eye caught an opinion piece in the WSJ:


The author’s punch line:

“The multibillion-dollar cancer treatment industry appeals to emotion in misleading ads … mounting  less a war on cancer than a war on truth —and on vulnerable consumers.”


Here are a couple of snippets from the article:

Early screening is rarely mentioned in the ads, “even though early diagnosis is more critical to survival than the interventions romanticized on TV.”

Near-perfect success rates are implied with little or no hard evidence of success rates.

For example:

Cancer Treatment Centers of America — which splurges $100 million by itself —has long raised eyebrows with its marketing.

Currently, the group touts its “genomic testing” which guides patient-specific chemotherapy.

Unmentioned is the dismal success rate of such tests in trials:

Only 6.4% of patients were successfully matched with a drug, according to a 2016 article in Nature.

As Tim Calkins, a marketing prof at Northwestern University: “Hospitals aren’t held to [FDA] standards at all, so a hospital can go out and say, ‘This is where miracles happen. And here’s Joe. Joe was about to die. And now Joe is going to live forever.’ ”

The author opines: The FDA would never “permit a pharmaceutical company to claim a near-perfect success rate when the true efficacy of its product is nowhere close.”


As we said yesterday,

Betting a long shot is ok when your downside is a $2 bet.

It’s not ok when you’re betting your life.

Bottom line:

When you hear a story – even a compelling one – stop and ask yourself: “Is this the rule or is it just an interesting outlier?”

If there’s any doubt, trust the science and the hard data !

Follow on Twitter @KenHoma

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