In-hospital TV net rapped for its ads

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An advocacy group founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader is asking U.S. hospital chains not to provide The Patient Channel, a 24-hour network that carries medical programming and direct-to-consumer advertising from pharmaceutical companies.

Commercial Alert, a not-for-profit organization based in Portland, Ore., sent a letter Feb. 25 to the CEOs of all U.S. hospital chains with at least 2,000 beds. Co-signed by 37 doctors and health professionals, the letter called The Patient Channel "a marketing tool for the nation's pharmaceutical corporations. It was designed to give them access to a captive audience at a time of maximum vulnerability and emotional distress." The letter ended with Commercial Alert urging the hospital chains to "do the right thing. ... Just say no to this ad delivery system called The Patient Channel and keep it out of your hospitals."

lofty goals

Commercial Alert bills itself as a national nonprofit organization that protects children and communities from commercialism.

The ad-driven Patient Channel is already in 550 hospitals and medical facilities across the country, and spokesman Patrick Jarvis said the network is on target to be in 1,100 facilities by September. The Patient Channel, a joint venture of General Electric Co.'s GE Medical Systems and NBC, launched in April of last year.

"We maintain what we said when we launched the channel: This is an effective way to bring information to patients and their families when they need it most," Mr. Jarvis said. "These are the same ads you would see on your television set at home."

no original material

Several ad agency executives who produce DTC advertising said they have neither shot new spots nor re-done any commercials simply for The Patient Channel.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, said his organization is against DTC advertising in general, "but this is an especially egregious form of it," he said. Drug companies spent $2.4 billion on DTC advertising last year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

Mr. Ruskin said he has never seen The Patient Channel, available by satellite only in the facilities wired for it. But he also sent a similar letter to the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, asking them to revise their hospital accreditation standards so that sponsored programming does not count as "patient education."

A spokesman for the commission said it received the letter and is "evaluating it and comparing it" to its current standard.

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