In my column of August 2, 2016, I criticized advertisements offering miracles to cancer patients by City of Hope, a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center. With the permission of Skeptical Inquirer, my column was republished a month later at HealthNewsReview.org, a website that offers skeptical analyses of journalism, advertising, marketing, public relations, and other messages that may influence consumers about health care.
HealthNewsReview.org includes “miracle” on its list of seven words that should never be used in medical news stories. On December 27, 2016, it published a review of a City of Hope news release dated December 20, 2016, with the headline “‘Miracle Patient’ Finds New Hope with Breast Cancer Vaccine.” The reviewers gave the news release a one-star rating out of a possible five stars based on scoring “Not Satisfactory” on eight of ten criteria used by HealthNewsReview.org. The reviewers wrote:
Highlighting a single person’s preliminary reaction—she had not yet even completed the treatment—to an experimental drug combination and calling it a miracle creates a false and biased narrative of the true effectiveness of this treatment.
The release noted that in previous patients with different types of cancer, no clinical benefit was seen with the drug combination and in this single case study, researchers weren’t sure what caused the patient’s improvement.
I’m glad to see that the “Miracle Patient” news release does not currently appear in City of Hope’s news release archive.
During 2017, I noticed that City of Hope refrained from miracle mongering in its newspaper advertisements (although it has continued to present its slogan “the MIRACLE of SCIENCE with SOUL” with the City of Hope logo in its advertising).
In 2016, miracle-mongering headlines in City of Hope newspaper advertisements included:
- WHEN IT’S THE FIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, YOU NEED A MIRACLE IN YOUR CORNER
- MIRACLES ARE CLOSER THAN YOU THINK
- A MIRACLE SHOULD NOT BE A MATTER OF DISTANCE
- WHEN YOU HAVE CANCER, MIRACLES ARE CLOSE TO HOME
- SCIENCE IS MIRACULOUS
- WHEN YOU HAVE CANCER, YOU WANT A MIRACLE
Throughout 2017, I clipped advertisements from City of Hope in the Los Angeles Times and in my weekly community newspaper. I found no mention of miracles in any of the headlines:
- CANCER IS UNPREDICTABLE. YOU NEED A CANCER CENTER THAT’S SEVERAL STEPS AHEAD
- WE DON’T BELIEVE THE FUTURE CAN WAIT FOR THE FUTURE
- IF YOU HAVE CANCER, WORLD-CLASS CANCER CARE IS A SHORT RIDE AWAY
- WORLD CLASS CANCER CARE RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW
- HE TRAINS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM TO SEEK AND DESTROY BRAIN TUMORS
- SHE SEES BREAST CANCER OTHERS CAN’T
- HE PROTECTS THE BRAIN AGAINST THE SPREAD OF CANCER
- A LEADING CANCER TREATMENT CENTER IS CLOSER THAN YOU THINK
- WE STARTED A BIOTECH REVOLUTION THAT SAVES MILLIONS OF LIFE [sic] A YEAR
In late December 2017, I called the Media Relations department at City of Hope and asked if my column had anything to do with the change I noticed in the newspaper advertising. My call was forwarded to Suzanne in Marketing. I left a message on her voicemail. She didn’t return my call.
In 2016, I noted that City of Hope’s home page indicated:
At City of Hope, we treat you as an individual whose life will be made whole again. We combine science with soul to work miracles.
That last sentence is still part of a recorded voice greeting to callers of the main City of Hope phone number. It also appears on a current link to a YouTube video promotion for City of Hope called “A Place of Miracles.”
The current home page also includes this hype: “We deliver scientific miracles that make lives whole again.”
As I explained in my first column about City of Hope, scientific research and medical advances do not deliver miracles.
On January 19, I sent this message to City of Hope’s Media Relations via email:
I have tried repeatedly to reach you over the phone for weeks, but each time I get an automated greeting. I left at least two messages, but no one has returned my calls.
I am writing a follow-up to a column I wrote in 2016 about your advertising. The column was reprinted by Health News Review. The reprint notes that I reached out to you for comment, but I got no response.
I would like to include your answers to these questions in my follow-up:
- I notice that your newspaper advertisements in 2017 did not include the kind of miracle mongering I described in your 2016 newspaper advertisements beyond the inclusion of your slogan, “The Miracle of Science with Soul.” To what extent did my column influence the decision to change the way the advertisements were written?
- The City of Hope home page includes a link to a video. The link says “WE COMBINE SCIENCE WITH SOUL TO CREATE MIRACLES.” The title of that video on YouTube is: “A Place of Miracles | City of Hope.” Why was there a noticeable omission of such miracle language in newspaper advertisements but not from your online media?
- Health News Review published a critical review of your press release of December 20, 2016. I can’t find your release anywhere in your archives. Did the critical review lead your office to remove the release from the archives?
Please forward this inquiry to the most appropriate person to answer each question.
I received no response by the morning of January 23,so I called Media Relations again during its normal business hours. Part of the voice greeting mentioned that staff could be paged after normal business hours by pressing O to be connected to the main telephone number for City of Hope. I explained to the operator my lack of success reaching Media Relations and that I was connected to her to page the staff. She explained to me that Media Relations doesn’t have pagers.
I wonder whether Media Relations is still operating at City of Hope. Its last press release as of January 23, 2018, was on December 17, 2017.
City of Hope seems to have refrained from miracle mongering in its newspaper ads during 2017. I’d like to think that my previous writing had something to do with the change, but I was unable to get confirmation. I also don’t know why City of Hope’s miracle mongering press release of December 20, 2016, doesn’t appear in its archives. But I do know that City of Hope has continued to promote itself as a place of miracles.