Hype in Healthcare Marketing & PR

Blog post by Colin Hung.

The fifth annual Healthcare IT Marketing & PR Conference (#HITMC) starts on April 4th in New Orleans – the day after our next #hcldr chat.

To help kick off the conference I thought it would be interesting to invite the #HITMC community to our next #hcldr chat for a discussion on one particular aspect of healthcare marketing and PR – hype.

The Oxford Dictionary defines hype as “promote or publicize a product or idea intensively, often exaggerating its importance or benefits”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines overhype as “to advertise or praise something more than it deserves in newspapers, on television, online, etc., in order to make people excited about it and want to buy it, try it, invest in it, etc.

In the days before mass media, hype was strictly the purview of company salespeople and marketers. In our modern age, however, the media itself can be a cause of hype.

The consumer world is littered with over-hyped products: New Coke, Segways, the Apple Newton, the Pontiac Aztek and HD DVD. The business world also has its share of over-hyped offerings: neural networks, Windows Vista, thin clients and Cisco’s Cius business tablet.

Sadly, healthcare is not immune from over-hype. Witness the recent implosion of Theranos – once touted as the future of healthcare testing. Most damaging and deadly was the hype surrounding “liberation therapy”. In 2009, Dr Paolo Zamboni an Italian vascular researcher published a small, uncontrolled study that indicated one specific vein-widening procedure could alleviate symptoms for one specific type of Multiple-Sclerosis (MS) sufferer. This “miracle cure” was soon hyped to the point where over 20,000 patients underwent the procedure which has since been proven to be ineffective.

It appears that despite all of healthcare’s training to be evidenced-based, we can just as easily fall victim to hype and irrational exuberance.

Marketers and PR professionals do not set out to generate hype (a negative outcome) but instead are asked to generate “awareness” and “buzz”. Frankly speaking, however, the line between “buzz” and
“hype” is very subjective. What I may consider buzz may be viewed as hype by certain audiences. In, fact, I’m pretty sure some of the campaigns I’ve run have been seen as “hype” by some recipients.

But I’ve always wondered, what is the criteria that people use to determine something is over-hyped. Are there certain characteristics about the product? The way the product is promoted? The person behind the product? Or how the product is portrayed by the media?

As evidenced by the Theranos and Liberation Therapy examples, the consequences of over-hype in healthcare can be deadly (procedures gone wrong) or devastating (hopes dashed or tests not detecting a condition).

As I prepare for HITMC I find my thoughts drifting back to this danger of over-hype. I wonder what history will say about today’s promising technologies like: Artificial Intelligence, genomic medicine, and blockchain. Are we already in an over-hyped situation? Is there an obligation for marketers and PR professionals to actively combat hype and set expectations properly? And what, if anything can patients do to protect themselves from over-hype?

On this last question, McMaster University suggests asking 6 critical questions:

  1. What’s the source?
  2. What’s in it for them?
  3. How many people were involved in the study?
  4. Was there a control group?
  5. How long did the study last?
  6. Will it work for me?

But is the onus of piercing hype solely on the shoulders of the reader (aka patient)?

Please join me on Tuesday April 3rd at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) for the weekly #hcldr tweetchat where we will be discussing hype in healthcare. For anyone attending HITMC, you are more than welcome to join me as I tweet from the lobby of the Marriott New Orleans – the conference hotel.

  • T1 What criteria do you use to decide if something is over-hyped?
  • T2 In your opinion, what technology, treatment or process is over-hyped in healthcare today?
  • T3 What implications are there for patients and healthcare in general from over-hype?
  • T4 What ideas do you have to combat hype as a patient and as an organization making products for healthcare?


“”RIP Cisco Cius – Another Tablet Bites the Dust”, Tony Bradley, PC World, 25 May 2012, https://www.pcworld.com/article/256307/r_i_p_cisco_cius_another_tablet_bites_the_dust.html, accessed 30 March 2018

“Blood, Fraud and Money Led to Theranos CEO’s Fall from Grace”, Matt Robinson and Rebecca Spalding, Bloomberg, 14 March 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-14/theranos-ceo-holmes-accused-of-fraud-by-sec-jeraxw6a, accessed 1 April 2018

“Theranos’ Scandal Exposes The Problem With Tech’s Hype Cycle”, Issie Lapowsky, Wired, 15 October 2015, https://www.wired.com/2015/10/theranos-scandal-exposes-the-problem-with-techs-hype-cycle/, accessed 1 April 2018

“Hype around MS ‘cure’ proves deadly”, Kate Allen, Toronto Star, 22 November 2010, https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2010/11/22/hype_around_ms_cure_proves_deadly.html, accessed 1 April 2018

“Preventing Overhype in Healthcare”, GE Healthcare, 18 July 2013, http://newsroom.gehealthcare.com/preventing-overhype-in-healthcare/, accessed 1 April 2018

“This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study”, Julia Belluz, Vox, 27 February 2017, https://www.vox.com/2015/3/23/8264355/research-study-hype, accessed 1 April 2018

“Is Blockchain the Next Great Hope – or Hype?”, Knowledge@Wharton, 11 January 2017, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/blockchain-next-great-hope-hype/, accessed 1 April 2018

“This study of hype in press releases will change journalism”, Bethany Brookshire, ScienceNews, 19 December 2014, https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/scicurious/study-hype-press-releases-will-change-journalism, accessed 1 April 2018

“Media Hype? It’s Not As Bad As It Seems”, David Spurgeon, BMJ, 8 May 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC406374/, accessed 1 April 2018

“Don’t believe the hype: 6 tips to identify trustworthy health information”, McMaster, 2 May 2017, https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2017/05/02/dont-believe-the-hype-6-tips-to-identify-trustworthy-health-information, accessed 1 April 2018

“Gartner Hype Cycle”, Gartner, https://www.gartner.com/technology/research/methodologies/hype-cycle.jsp, accessed 1 April 2018

Image Credit

Hype! – darekb https://flic.kr/p/2Pj9k

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