by Charles Ornstein (NPR) February 14, 2014
Flipping through The New York Times magazine a few Sundays ago, former hospital executive Paul Levy was taken aback by a full-page ad for the da Vinci surgical robot.
It wasn’t that Levy hadn’t seen advertising before for the robot, which is used for minimally invasive surgeries. It was that the ad prominently featured a dozen members of the surgery team at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System. “We believe in da Vinci surgery because our patients benefit,” read the ad’s headline.
“While I have become accustomed to the many da Vinci ads, I was struck by the idea that a major university health system had apparently made a business judgment that it was worthwhile to advertise outside of its territory, in a national ad in The New York Times,” Levy, former chief executive of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, told me by email.
As Levy scanned the ad further, he noticed that at the bottom the ad bore a copyright for Intuitive Surgical Inc., the maker of the da Vinci system. It included this line: “Some surgeons who appear in this ad have received compensation from the company for providing educational services to other surgeons and patients.”
Ads for prescription drugs and medical devices are common, and some feature physician testimonials about why they believe the product works. Physicians also deliver promotional talks for drug and device makers, something we’ve covered extensively in our series.
But a whole hospital department? Levy wondered: Was this kosher?
“I was stunned that a public university would allow its name and reputation to be used in that way,” he wrote. “The next day, I did a little research on the university’s own website and confirmed that my initial reaction was correct: The ad violated the University’s code of conduct and administrative procedures, and likely state law.”
Da Vinci robotic systems aren’t cheap. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that they can , and questions have been raised about their value. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in a : “There is no good data proving that robotic hysterectomy is even as good as — let alone better — than existing, and far less costly, minimally invasive alternatives.”
Levy, whose blog is called , began writing a series of posts about the ad. The first, called , ran on Jan. 22. “The University has allowed its reputation to be used in a nationally distributed advertisement produced and owned by a private party, in benefit to that party’s commercial objectives. This is not consistent with ‘exercising custodial responsibility for University property and resources,’ ” it said…