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“The scene is shadowy, and the background music foreboding,” Shefali Luthra writes over at Kaiser Health News for STAT. “On the TV screen, a stream of beleaguered people stand in an unending line. ‘If you’re waiting patiently for a liver transplant, it could cost you your life,’ warns the narrator. One man pulls another out of the queue, signaling an escape. Both smile.  Is this a dystopian video game? Gritty drama? Neither. It is a commercial for the living donor liver transplant center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, an academic hospital embroiled in a high-profile battle with the region’s dominant health plan and now making a play to a national audience. Hospitals are using TV spots like this one to attract lucrative patients into their hospitals as health care costs and industry competition escalate. Some institutions use them to build national and international brands on niche but high-priced health services. They’re often procedures involving expensive technology that benefit only a sliver of the population. But they could lure wealthy patients seeking high-end care and can also give hospitals leverage with insurers. ‘Hospitals are competing, just like any other business,’ said Mark Fratrik, an economist at BIA Advisory Services, a media consulting firm.  UPMC’s ad has been airing nationally this year during cable news shows. Advertising research company estimates the campaign’s cost at more than $3 million since it first aired in early September. …  But some analysts worry that these hospital advertisements are incomplete or misleading. ‘We have choices about where we seek medical care,’ said Yael Schenker, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who has researched hospital advertising but was not involved with the liver transplant ad. ‘We want to spend our money wisely, and need information about the quality and cost of health care services. Health care advertising — which purports to offer that information and fill that need for consumers — really doesn’t.’ Last year, hospitals nationwide spent more than $450 million on advertising overall — including TV, print and digital — according to figures from Kantar Media, a firm that monitors ad spending. That comes on the heels of a surge between 2011 and 2015, during which time hospitals and health systems upped their overall ad spending by 41 percent, according to figures published by Advertising Age, which tracks marketing trends. By 2015, hospital ad spending accounted for close to a quarter of all health care-related advertising. ..  New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery, an orthopedic hospital, has launched its own national campaign this year — a minute-long TV spot also airing on cable news shows — that features jaunty electronic music and people of all ages dancing, jogging, and doing yoga and gymnastics.” Shefali Luthra, “Hospitals’ national TV ads build brands for high-priced services,” STAT.

Jeanne Pinder

Jeanne Pinder  is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded...