Learn how consumers and advertisers are impacting treatment options.

Patients are taking an increasingly active role in their medical care. They participate in treatment decisions, order refills, schedule appointments and shop around for medical products and services.

Many factors have influenced this trend. Patients now prefer to be involved in medical decisions rather than have clinicians make all decisions for them. Technological innovations have provided access to widely available medical information online, allowing patients to research treatment options and be informed about their medical decisions.

Patients are also responsible for growing portions of their health care costs as insurance premiums, deductibles and copays increase. This has created a stronger financial incentive to shop around for health services and be involved in treatment decisions.

Provider spending

With patients readily engaged in medical decisions and shopping in the hospital marketplace, health care systems are competing for patient services. Many hospitals, clinics and medical centers are increasing advertising efforts to attract patients in this competitive environment. Spending for advertising by medical facilities has increased substantially over the last decade, reaching nearly $2 billion in 2014.

Cancer centers have more than tripled advertising spending since 2005, and many centers advertise in national media to attract patients outside of their regional markets. Medical centers have also increased online advertising, which uses complex algorithms to select ads based on consumers browsing behavior. Online advertising is particularly effective because it targets consumers with relevant ads at the exact moment they are seeking information.

Consumers are highly aware of health services advertising, but there is little research on how this advertising affects patients. It may benefit them by matching medical care to their preferences, reducing the stigma of certain diseases, such as cancer, and providing new information about treatment options. This may be important as patients navigate a complex health care system with a variety of treatment options.

Health services advertising may also negatively influence patients. Research studies have found that ads often use emotional language that evokes hope or fear and leaves out information about costs or insurance coverage of advertised treatments. Ads without balanced information may lead to increased health care costs for patients.

Lastly, online advertising may influence patients’ preferences for treatment because it promotes certain options over others. For example, if online search advertising promotes a new treatment that uses innovative technology (such as a surgical robot), and hides others (such as more traditional approaches), this may affect the type of therapy a patient pursues. The newer treatment may not actually be better, but advertising has shaped the patient’s view of the product and may influenced the choice of treatment.

If current trends maintain this direction, hospitals, clinics and medical centers will continue to invest heavily in advertising for medical services. These ads will be a major source of patient information that may influence consumer perceptions of treatment and decisions about where they seek care. Consumers should be aware of both the benefits and limitations of this advertising.

Patient spending

Just as advertising can influence patients, consumers can shape health care with their spending. This influence is less pronounced that in other industries, however. In the car or computer industry, for example, consumers spending applies pressure that increases innovation and quality while decreasing prices.

The health care industry has been somewhat shielded from this consumer influence because a third party (such as employers, insurance companies or the government) has traditionally paid for health care costs. This pattern is changing as consumers pay an increasing portion of their medical costs and are shopping for health care services. One example of this influence is improved patient access to convenient medical care. Patients increasingly desire easy access to health care services right when they are needed. This consumer preference has resulted in an increased number of walk-in clinics in retail stores, urgent-care centers and telehealth services. Physician offices are also increasingly providing options for evening and weekend appointments for primary care visits to accommodate patients.

Health care costs often lack transparency, and both patients and clinicians may be unaware of the costs of treatment until after a therapy is given. Consumers want reliable information about price and quality to make informed medical choices, especially as they are responsible for more of their health costs. In the coming years, patients will see more personalized information to support medical decisions making, as well as more information about the costs and quality of health products and services.

By some estimates, greater consumer access to transparent information (including personalized, out-of-pocket price data) could save $18 billion over the next decade. As consumers compare health services and base their decisions on cost and quality information, they can lower overall health care spending. They will also have more power to influence the health care industry with their spending in the years to come.

Laura B. Vater, MPH, has collaborated on numerous health communication research projects, and her work describing cancer center advertising content and trends in spending has been highlighted on CNN, WebMD and Reuters Health/ She will graduate with her medical degree from Indiana University School of Medicine in May 2017 and plans to pursue clinical training in internal medicine.