Medical center spends $7m on new device, then gets free advertising from local TV news

Gary Schwitzer is the founder & publisher of  Back in the 1970s he worked in local TV health news in Milwaukee and Dallas before joining CNN.  Then he saw the light and left TV news altogether.

Believe me, I empathize with a local TV news reporter who is a general assignment reporter asked to cover crime today, courts tomorrow, then an announcement by a local medical center on the next day.

Here’s what happens as a result. A Chattanooga medical center invites media in to hear about its $7 million robotic Cyberknife, and local TV dutifully showed up for the media high-tech lovefest. Excerpts from the story:

• “It’s being called a breakthrough in the medical world and its one-of-a-kind technology is available right here in the Scenic City.”
• The story contradicts itself with a prostate cancer patient’s story, stating that the man said the technology “saved his life” but then the man himself says “Well I don’t know if it adds any more years to your life but it makes those that you have much more comfortable.”
• “There are some side effects, but nothing, doctors say, that’s detrimental.” Huh?
• “new life-saving technology has allowed him to return to normal life”
• “cancer can’t hide from this robotic technology”
• “only hospital in the region” to have this new technology
• “one of first sites in the world to use the advanced technology”
• “cancer-hunting robot”
• “extremely high success rate” (no data given)
• “not available to everyone” (framing this as a “who’s being denied?” issue)

Meantime, the Chattanooga Times Free Press newspaper reported on the same media event:

“Erlanger’s public relations team assembled Gardner, doctors and local reporters presumably to mark three months since the hospital began treating patients with the device. No formal purpose was announced for the media event.
…On top of the $7.3 million spent to create a radiosurgery center, Erlanger has launched a heavy advertising campaign for CyberKnife. Hospital spokeswoman Susan Sawyer did not provide a cost estimate of that effort.”

Here’s part of that ad campaign:

None of the local news coverage that I could find – and certainly none of the ads – discuss data – real outcomes on benefits and harms.

This is just one day and one media event in Chattanooga. Scenes like this play out on local TV stations every day across the country.

It’s ironic that just this week, Trudy Lieberman wrote on the Columbia Journalism Review site about “A Hospital Story Not To Write.” Her point: journalists should avoid such ribbon cutting ceremonies and spend far more time digging on data – like outcomes data. Something sorely missing in Scenic City Cyberknife coverage on this given day.

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Please note, comments are no longer published through this website. All previously made comments are still archived and available for viewing through select posts.

Toni Brayer, MD

August 12, 2011 at 9:22 am

You are right on. But as network news dies a slow death they need to be more and more sensational in what they report. The networks have cut back on reporters and producers and they now want the quick, packaged story that will gain market share…the 60 second story and then off to the next one, even if the facts are shoddy. “A Medical Breakthrough” rather than research data on outcomes (which isn’t
even available) is what gets everyone attention. It is another reason why patients are out of touch with what is really value-added and the costs of care go up,up,up. How much do they need to charge to pay for this $7.3m expenditure and get an ROI? Also the next hospital 5 miles down the street will need to compete with the same technology…which may have no proven value at all.

Fred Kinder

August 20, 2011 at 11:19 am

The CyberKnife is a major advancement in accurate delivery of radiotherapy to a tumor.
Radiation(X-Rays, also known as Photons) was discovered in the late 1800’s and used medically in the early 1900’s for imaging and treatment of cancer.
Only recently(20 years) have advances computers and related technology made major improvements in imaging, software, and robotics.
Localized therapy improves with target definition, and delivery of therapy to the target. Radio therapy equipment(IMRT, SBRT and Proton Therapy) is continuously improving dose planning. shaping of the prescribed dose to match the target tumor volume.
What makes the CyberKnife different? It deliverers Photon Beams in three axis, all other equipment to date deliver beams from two axis. The advantage is prescribed dose planning can be delivered with more control of beams to miss critical structures. Treating prostate cancer as another unique feature, tumor tracking real time before beams are delivered. Combine these unique features allow a prescribed dose to be delivered to the tumor with sub mm accuracy unlike any other therapy. The benefit patient is improved treatment outcome with lower toxicity and better cure rates. Our health care system benefits form lowers cost, however at a great reduction of income to the radiation oncologist
IMRT/IGRT has made major advances from technology which also benefit patient outcome with lower toxicity and better cure.
Surgery was considered the Gold Standard 10-15 years ago, however today in my opinion radiotherapy has become the Gold standard lowering patient risk from treatment and improving cure.
Treating cancer in very information rich which requires time to understand which therapy is optimal for you.
I encourage all patients to be informed patients.

Gary Schwitzer

August 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I’m happy for you for your experience with Cyberknife. It’s clear that you’ve become quite an advocate for it.
Please note that my entire post above was a review of the journalism involved – not a review of the treatment approach itself. This post – and this entire website is devoted to the improvement of journalism. It is not a review of new therapies or new technologies. That should also be clear from my addendum, which raised the same questions about journalism but as applied to coverage of another new technology.

Fred Kinder

August 20, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Hi Gary,
Thanks for the comment.
Journalism faces difficult obstacles with information rich topics like radio therapy. Every stakeholder sells their biased point of view often an incomplete truth.
I hope media of of sorts keep searching for the truth.
FYI I am a cancer patient treated with the CyberKnife, however it took 8 months to have my insurance denials overturned.
Best Regards,