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TV's Patient Channel assailed

A consumer group says drugmakers' ads target a hospital's vulnerable captive audience. Not everyone agrees.

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

Since January, patients yearning to watch something deeper than talk shows and sitcoms from their Citrus Memorial Hospital beds have had an alternative called the Patient Channel, a 24-hour TV network that focuses on health care.

To hear hospital staff and network owner General Electric Co.'s GE Medical Systems representatives tell it, the channel guides patients to become more aware of a gamut of health and wellness topics: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, nutrition and exercise.

But at least one national consumer advocacy group alleges there is a more insidious lesson lurking in the advertisements that flank the educational programs and fund the network. In letters sent last week, Commercial Alert, an organization cofounded by Ralph Nader, asked the chief executives of all 60 U.S. hospital chains with more than 2,000 beds to pull the Patient Channel from their TV menus.

"The Patient Channel is essentially a marketing tool for the nation's pharmaceutical corporations," stated the letter, which also was signed by 37 doctors and health professionals. "It was designed to give them access to a captive audience at a time of maximum vulnerability and emotional distress.

"Just say no to this ad delivery system . . . and keep it out of your hospitals," the letter concluded.

Citrus Memorial did not receive a letter from the group because it is a smaller, not-for-profit operation, Commercial Alert founder Gary Ruskin said. But during a phone interview from Portland, Ore., he contended that hospital staff still should be wary of the messages patients are receiving.

"We want it taken out of Citrus and every other hospital in the country," said Ruskin, who began the Commercial Alert in 1998 to protect children and communities from commercialism. "Hospitals should be for healing, not hawking drugs."

Like the more than 550 hospitals that have subscribed to the service, Citrus Memorial offers the Patient Channel as just one of many channels in patient rooms and waiting areas. The GE Medical network, launched last September, offers half-hour segments such as "Cholesterol: Fact or Fiction" and "Irritable Bowel: Breaking the Secrecy Barrier."

Ads about pharmaceutical and insurance companies, pharmacy chains, antismoking information and consumer products bookend the programs. A maximum of 10 minutes of advertising per hour of programming is allowed, according to the Patient Channel Web site.

But GE Medical spokesman Patrick Jarvis said patients typically see only 19 minutes of advertising during each 24-hour cycle. These ads resemble commercials seen on other networks and approved by the FCC and FDA, he said. They also must pass the stringent litmus test of the Patient Channel's advisory board of medical, ethics and legal experts.

The emphasis is on patient education, he said. Supporters tout the channel for helping hospitals meet the federal requirements to delivering educational information to patients.

The ad revenue enables GE Medical to offer the network free to hospitals that already subscribe to another company TV program or own or lease the company's medical equipment. That's why Jarvis views the consumer advocacy group's campaign as ironic.

"This is a way to not pass costs on to a patient," Jarvis said. "If a hospital had a subscription fee, where do you think that cost is going to get passed on to?"

Ruskin said the programming is not at the heart of his organization's angst, which echoes concerns raised by other citizen groups when the Patient Channel beamed into hospital rooms last fall.

In the form letters, doctors from respected medical schools nationwide, including a family medicine professor from the Florida State University College of Medicine, argued that the ads allowed drug companies to push their products on the bedridden "in a way that carries the implicit authority and endorsement of the hospital and its doctors."

If patients agree, they haven't told nursing managers at Citrus Memorial, spokeswoman Rebecca D. Martin said.

"We have not had any patient complaints," she said. "If we do start to get complaints, then we would evaluate it."

Seven Rivers Community Hospital doesn't carry the Patient Channel. Instead, the public relations staff is in the final stages of developing a commercial-free, in-house patient education channel, spokeswoman Dorothy T. Pernu said.

On this channel, educational health videos would be spliced by hospital information and music, Pernu said.

Thus, Commercial Alert's concerns "won't be an issue at our facility," she said.

According to Jarvis, the GE Medical spokesman, the consumer advocacy group's fight isn't really an issue at all.

"If you don't like the programming, you can turn the station or turn the TV off," he said. "If the patients didn't see value in it or the clinicians didn't see value in it, the program would cease to exist. Hospitals and clinicians are embracing the technology because they find value in it."

-- Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or

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