LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates Smart Behavior

Your Health At Risk

Each month the PR departments from non profit health organizations attempt to generate enough muscle for their cause to trigger national health observances-specific days, weeks or months that raise awareness about important health topics or honor a specific professional group. (See From National Blood Donor Month and Cervical Cancer Screening Month in January to Hand Washing Awareness Week in December there are currently more than 100 health observation and recognition dates that health professionals and community groups can use to sponsor health promotion events, stimulate awareness of health risks, or focus on disease prevention.

In May, one of the busiest months for health promotion, three of my professional interests will be tackled as I promote Outwitting Osteoporosis as part of National Osteoporosis Awareness and Prevention, Beauty More Than Skin Deep as part of Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection Prevention Month. However, they'll be competing with many other important issues including mental health, lupus and celiac disease. One week in June will focus on men's health and there will be (among others) days dedicated to cancer survivors, sickle cell anemia and HIV.

Last week as I plowed through many web sites dedicated to these, and other causes, I realized, again, how much the Internet has impacted the way we learn about anything. Some of the sites are well meaning and filled with useful but boring text that reminded me of a time early in my career when a successful author urged me to learn skills to avoid writing as though I was an employee of the Public Health Service. Others provided engaging and well-written text designed to grab my attention. I was disturbed to realize that many of the well-written sites provided misinformation and some of the less engaging sites were rich with accurate, useful information.

Then a colleague reminded me that it's possible that when it comes to health, these sites may be used, but are rarely the basis of decision-making. Instead we rely on word of mouth, media hype, and well-funded marketing machines that focus on a quick fix or a successful story often accompanied by a disclaimer that warns, "Individual results may vary."

Chances are, if you spend any time in front of a television you've been intrigued by an advertisement for a drug product promising to resolve any number of health issues followed by a lengthy disclaimer delivered by a fast talking actor that lists the abhorrent side effects an individual may experience if the drug is used. My experience is that we find this disclaimer annoying. Marketing folks know the disclaimer is mostly ignored. Reliable professionals believe these advertisements shouldn't be on the air (or in a four page spread in your favorite magazine) in the first place.

As a graduate of pharmacy school who is well aware of the assets and liabilities of marketing medications in this way I, too, find these advertisements disturbing. They have simply taken the place of what medical professionals called "drug reps" or "detail men." Typically these were individuals with pharmacy degrees who were employed by a drug company to give the doctor information about the company's new drugs with the aim of persuading the doctor to prescribe them. My extroverted physician dad, who also had a pharmacy degree, enjoyed an affable relationship with these typically very smart "drug reps" who provided him with branded knickknacks, journal articles and drug samples. By the 1970's their appearance changed as pharmaceutical companies began to hire women who looked like a supermodel or men who looked like a well-groomed movie star to get the attention of the now busier physician or dentist. Television changed the scene. It was soon a better investment to create an ad than it was to train and support human personnel who were no longer so welcome in an office that needed to see more patients per hour to generate the income now limited by insurance rebates for care. That evolved to the ads we continue to see despite a 2009 move initiated by the US Federal Trade Commission's attempt to deal with the consumer testimonials and "results may vary" language-often delivered by a well paid spokesperson. Although it led to advertising guidelines that attempt to prevent deceptive advertising, endorsements and testimonials, the focus became weight loss products, eye care surgery and dietary supplements vs. a laser eye on other health products. Additionally, some marketers, especially those in the infomercial business, realized they could make big bucks long before the FTC took them down-usually via mail fraud laws. (For an example Google "Kevin Trudeau.)

So, what can you gain from my leap about monthly campaigns to inform us about health issues to my personal indictment of unreliable health information. In short, it's "know your source." Most official health-oriented campaigns are reliable. It's important to remember that just because a health product is promoted via the internet or on radio or television, or in the news, doesn't make it reliable. Moreover, because each of us have a different biology and physiology it's not "individual results may vary," it's individual results will vary. Be well.

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LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates
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