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Health & Spirit

The painful side of positive health care marketing

Sam Harnett, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Lori Wallace sits on a couch with her 11-year-old son and his new pet snake. It burrows under his armpit, as if afraid. Wallace is sure it's not.

"If he was terrified, he would be balled up," Wallace said. "See, that is why they are called ball pythons. When they are scared, they turn into a little ball."

Wallace is dying of breast cancer, but a stranger wouldn't know. She has a pixie haircut and a warm tan. She is vibrant and chatty and looks you right in the eyes when she talks. Wallace doesn't shy away from what is happening to her. She shows me her cracked feet. They bleed from the chemotherapy pills she takes.

As Wallace's cancer has progressed over the past seven years, she has become more critical of what she sees as excessive positivity in health care marketing. It's everywhere: TV ads, radio commercials, billboards. The advertisements feature happy, healed patients and tell stories of miraculous recoveries. The messages are optimistic, about people beating steep odds. The ads spread false hope, Wallace said, and for a patient like her, they are a slap in the face.

A couple of decades ago, hospitals and clinics did not advertise much to customers. Now, they are spending more and more each year on marketing, according to university professors who study advertising.

Wallace, who lives in San Jose, Calif., said she used to be a hopeful person, someone who believed you could fight through any misfortune. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 39. Her son was 4 at the time. She couldn't believe it.

She is now in her fifth round of chemotherapy and it makes her brain foggy, she said. Her stage 4 cancer has spread throughout her body. It's going to kill her, she said.

"The median survival of a woman with metastatic breast cancer is 33 months," Wallace said. "My 33 months would have been Dec. 6 last year. So I am on bonus time right now."

Wallace pulled up an ad on her computer from UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, in San Francisco. An announcer intones, "Amid a thousand maybes and a million nos, we believe in the profound and unstoppable power of yes."

There is a similar kind of optimism at the heart of a lot of the ad campaigns by health care providers -- with slogans like "Thrive" and "Smile Out." Wallace said the subtext of the ads is that people like her -- who get sick and will die -- maybe just aren't being positive enough.

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