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Outrage of the Month: Peddling Bad Medicine With Deceptive Advertising

Health Letter, October 2014

Michael Carome, M.D.

Too often, companies entice consumers into purchasing health care products based on deceptive advertisements that overstate the potential benefits of the products and omit key information about risks. One such company is Winter Park, Fla.-based HealthFair, a company that peddles inexpensive cardiovascular disease screening packages to people across the country for whom the screenings are medically inappropriate.

In my July Outrage of the Month column, I highlighted Public Citizen’s attempts to get 20 hospitals and medical institutions in eight states to sever their relationships with HealthFair. Thirteen of these institutions have since indicated that they have ended or will soon be ending their partnership with the company.

On Sept. 4, in an ongoing effort to protect consumers from falling prey to HealthFair’s misleading advertising, Public Citizen asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the direct-to-consumer advertising and promotional activities of the company. In its letter to the FTC, Public Citizen asserted that the company’s advertising materials make unsubstantiated claims about the medical benefits of its screening packages and omit information about the risks of adverse health-related outcomes and financial harms that may result from the screenings.

According to HealthFair’s website and its print solicitations mailed directly to consumers, the company’s cardiovascular disease screenings have saved thousands of lives since 1998 and prevent approximately 1,000 heart attacks and strokes annually. But HealthFair has no evidence from well-controlled clinical tests proving that its screening tests save lives and prevent heart attacks and strokes in the general population its solicitations target. The FTC generally has required such evidence for those types of medical claims.

In addition, HealthFair’s advertising and promotional materials omit important information, such as the type of individuals for whom certain cardiovascular screening tests are appropriate, evidence-based guidelines describing if and when such tests should be performed, and the risks of cardiovascular disease screening, particularly indiscriminate screening as promoted by HealthFair.

Even HealthFair CEO Terry Diaz did not deny the misleading nature of his company’s promotional materials. In remarkably candid comments to the press responding to Public Citizen’s letter to the FTC, he said, “We agree there’s no proof a life is in fact saved [by our screenings]. We understand that. But we have thousands of testimonials from patients saying, ‘Thank you for saving my life. … We didn’t know we had this condition.’ … We took some liberties in the advertising.”[1]

HealthFair’s materials have duped large numbers of consumers into undergoing unnecessary and inappropriate cardiovascular disease screening tests, exposing them to risks of physical, psychological and financial harms that can result from false-positive screening tests, overdiagnosis and overtreatment. For example, false-positive test results can cause unfounded anxiety and lead to additional unnecessary, risky and costly diagnostic procedures and treatments.

Given the scope of HealthFair’s operations, it is imperative that the FTC investigate the company’s advertising practices. In the meantime, consumers can protect themselves by ignoring the company’s advertisements and tossing in the trash its mailed solicitations.

References

[1] Brunsman BJ. Mercy Health partner welcomes review of so-called ‘deceptive,’ ‘unethical’ ads. Cincinnati Business Courier. September 9, 2014. http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/news/2014/09/09/exclusive-mercy-health-partner-welcomes-review-of.html?s=print. Accessed September 22, 2014.