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My opinion: feds' ads fuel fear-mongering about screening tests

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First, let me emphasize that I believe that the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) was well-intentioned with its new “just in time for Father’s Day” ad campaign, described by the Wall Street Journal’s Laura Landro, who reports:

“A darkly humorous ad campaign being launched this week aims to tackle the serious issue of an aging generation of men in denial of their health risks.

In one TV spot, a family is gathered in their new house with the real-estate broker, who predicts they will have many happy years there. “Except for you,” she says to the dad, “because you’ll be gone three years from now…struck down by the same disease that got your father.”

In a parting shot the broker adds: “Sadly, it could have been detected early with a simple test….but you didn’t have it.”

Now I know that viewers are directed to an AHRQ website where only evidence-based recommendations will be made – say, for example, for blood pressure screening. So you won’t see wholesale endorsement of prostate cancer screening because of the uncertainties surrounding the benefits vs. harms of that test in a general population.

But the ads don’t say that.

They leave the vague impression of being “struck down by the same disease that got your father.” And “Sadly, it could have been detected early with a simple test.”

Readers of this blog – and of anything with any substance to it concerning screening tests – know that there’s almost no such thing as “a simple screening test.”

As a physician-colleague reminded me: “All screening tests cause harm; some may do good as well.”

Here’s another TV ad in the campaign:

I know that AHRQ and the Ad Council had their hearts in the right place with this campaign. But their heads have to do a better job of learning how to communicate about screening. Or else they’ll be guilty of the same disease-mongering techniques that are so prevalent in so many other messages in general circulation these days. The worried well are constantly whipped into a frenzy over the supposed weapons of mass destruction inside all of us.

Maybe feds’ ad campaigns should go for a little less dark humor and a few more plain facts.

This is all so ironic because the AHRQ recommendations are based on the same US Preventive Services Task Force recommendations that so many Americans seem so uninformed about – including the breast cancer screening recommendations published last November that led some misguided observers to say that the task force didn’t care about some women’s lives.

The feds didn’t communicate those recommendations very well and the new ad campaign almost swings the pendulum too far in the other direction.

That’s my opinion.

Re-write or re-do, AHRQ?

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Comments (2)

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Andrew Holtz

June 16, 2010 at 1:34 pm

The ad campaign talks down to men by oversimplifying the pros and cons of screening… by not even mentioning the cons of some tests. To trumpet the message that testing is inherently good simply misstates the facts.
And I was struck by some of the statistics highlighted in the WSJ article and on the AHRQ web site. Landro noted that 57% of men had visited a physician in the past year… but since none of the screening tests listed by AHRQ are recommended to be done annually for healthy men, there really isn’t any reason given for why a healthy man should go to the doctor annually.
Also… AHRQ and Landro both note that men go to doctors less often than women and that men are more likely to be hospitalized for complications of heart failure and diabetes than women. They both seem to miss the non sequiter in linking those stats. Here’s the deal… while men with diabetes and heart failure certainly can benefit from ongoing case management, including doctor visits, those men are NOT the healthy men this ad campaign is aimed at.
It’s like saying that cars with oil leaks benefit from going to a mechanic, therefore cars without oil leaks should be checked by a mechanic.