The Cleveland Clinic started its news service nearly four years ago with a pilot sent to NBC affiliates that signed up and a handshake agreement with Fox News. The service acts as “a customer service arm for reporters,” says the Cleveland Clinic’s media relations specialist, Raquel Santiago.

At one end of the customer-service spectrum, NBC seems to use the Cleveland Clinic material as a kind of story-idea service. Helen Chickering, a medical reporter for NBC News Channel, which sends stories to NBC affiliates, says the network cannot use prepackaged Video News Releases, known as VNRs, in stories, but will make its own interview requests based on them. “The only way we can connect is with an interview request,” she says of the rules about dealing with VNR providers. One story in a special series called Modern Medical Miracles, which aired on NBC ’s Today at the end of November, demonstrates how the network uses the clinic’s material. In October, the Cleveland Clinic sent out a story called “Racing Hearts,” which showed how race-car drivers are testing a new heart-monitoring device, and featured a Cleveland Clinic doctor. Today then created its own story featuring the Cleveland Clinic doctor; the medical affairs director for the Champ Car World Series, an international car race; and NBC ’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, who called the device a “very cool breakthrough.” The segment discussed other kinds of heart devices and did note that the one tested on race-car drivers was not yet on the market.

Toward the other end of the spectrum is Fox. As Cleveland Clinic’s Sharon Dennis sees it, “We act as a news bureau for Fox.” A CJR analysis shows just how true that is. We traced the use of eight stories the clinic sent out last fall and found that twenty-six stations—all Fox except three—used them almost verbatim. Dave Winstrom, the director of Fox News Edge, says Fox approves the scripts before the packages are sent to the stations, and adds that the stations may choose how to use them. “Some may use them verbatim, or cut them down, or not use them at all.” What’s sent to the stations, he says, is identified as being from the Cleveland Clinic, but “it’s up to them how they present the story.” (The piece about the virtual gym that ran in Austin did not tell viewers the source of the story.)

Marketing like that can produce a big return on a hospital’s investment. The Mayo Clinic, which started its own news service in 2000, sends its weekly Medical Edge stories to 130 TV stations in the U.S. and Canada. No other station in those markets can use Mayo’s Medical Edge offerings. Stations using the material must agree to say that the featured physician belongs to the Mayo Clinic and provide a link from the station Web site to Mayo’s.

How well does that work? CJR obtained a PowerPoint presentation given in 2004 to hospital marketers by the Mayo Clinic’s media relations manager, Lee Aase. It showed that brand preference for Mayo for serious medical conditions had increased 59 percent three years after the service began, and brought in new patients to boot. One story, called “Same-Day Teeth,” which told of a quicker way of doing lower-jaw dental implants, generated more than 175 calls, Aase’s report said. It resulted in twenty-three scheduled appointments and downstream revenue—money from patients who eventually had the procedure—estimated at $345,000. The presentation noted that 8.6 million people had seen the December 2001 Medical Edge stories. The value, said Mayo, was greater than ten times the cost of producing the shows.

Sharon O’Brien, the marketing director for University Health System in San Antonio, says she is moving away from paid advertising in favor of such media partnerships. “The hallmark of these packages is that they don’t look like paid advertising,” she says.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.