Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part letter about fake news.
I read an interesting article in a medical journal recently from the Department of Medical Ethics at New York University titled “A 'Cruel Tool': Hospital Ads Offering False Hope for Desperate Patients.” This dealt with, to plagiarize a famous statement, "fake news,” that unscrupulous commercial (i.e., for profit) hospitals and medical providers use to play on the desperation of patients.
These institutes/people flood the advertising spaces with testimonials from cancer patients and from their advertising gurus about the spectacular achievements their care is able to provide with the implication that few others are able to do so, and if patients go elsewhere they somehow will not get proper care. Testimonials sound somewhat like "Thank goodness for Hospital/Clinic X. They gave me the personalized individual treatment that I needed to beat my cancer," featuring a person looking very grateful who survived cancer and is thanking the doctors in the hospital where that took place.
There are several grave errors with such a narrative, very reminiscent of fake news, which may have some element of truth in the statement that when taken out of context of the entirety supposedly makes a definitive comment, but when looked at objectively loses credibility.
Firstly, there are always outliers, and some patients just live far longer than their peers given the same therapy for the same condition.
Secondly, some cancers, although they sound fierce, have a fairly benign course, and almost all patients do well for long periods of time.
Thirdly, any therapy that is extraordinary is usually in early research projects, not yet in public knowledge and certainly not talked about on television commercials. I happen to be somewhat familiar with one of the most popular braggarts having been associated with a cancer group that was in the same city as the headquarters of this entity, probably known to most television watchers. They were thought of as little better than quacks in treatment, and infamous for figuring out the maximum procedures for which the patients' insurance would pay and then performing many useless tests based on this payment profile.
Finally, those anecdotes and stories may not be giving a realistic picture to people who have serious, life-threatening cancers and other diseases and these narratives suggest that survival is, if not certain, is at least likely. While it is true that there are exciting new developments in cancer therapy, such as immunotherapy, that targets particular parts of the body so that the immune system reacts more strongly against their malignant cells, these advances are so far only applicable to a small number of cancers and for many cancers, we do not have a lot more than we did a year or two or three ago, and even when the newer treatments are applicable, a majority of patients still do not benefit.
Dr. Sam Friedman is the medical director of the Cancer Center of Guam.