Another seed that gets planted is that the doctor or hospital featured on TV is the best around, whether true or not. KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City devotes airtime to health care providers—a Lasik eye specialist, plastic surgeons affiliated with a hospital that is one of the program sponsors, and a dentist specializing in cosmetic procedures—to perform what the station brands “Oklahoma’s Ultimate Makeover.” Two people are chosen from the community to have a complete make-over with some aspects of their transformation woven into a one-hour TV special. Dominique Homsey Gross, the station’s sales marketing manager, says the makeover is a source of “nontraditional revenue.” Viewers might easily assume that because the doctors were picked to “perform” on camera, they must be top-notch. But the actual requirement seems to be that, as Gross put it, “these people partner with the TV station to show what they do.”

Such branding partnerships can even obscure problems at a hospital. The CBS station KYW-TV in Philadelphia has a partnership with Temple University Hospital. Stories resulting from the partnership, called Temple LifeLines specials, won two mid-Atlantic regional Emmys—one in 2004 for a story about the hospital’s heart transplant program and one last September for a story on bone marrow transplants. According to a hospital press release, the transplant program profiled “some of the wonderful patients who have benefited from their quality-care experiences at Temple.” The hospital pays for the airtime and, although the station’s medical reporter, Stephanie Stahl, hosts the half-hour show, hospital officials are very much a part of the creative process. Charles Soltoff, associate vice president for marketing at Temple, says the hospital presents ideas to the station—what’s interesting, where the hospital has opportunities for new business development, advances in treatment options. “We tell them what’s valuable,” Soltoff says. The decision on topics is “shared,” he says, but a hospital official who talked to CJR on the condition of anonymity said: “Ultimately it’s Temple’s decision about what to feature,” further explaining that “the writer does the script and submits a draft to us. We edit the script.” Soltoff says, “We edit it down from various perspectives.”

But there have been problems with Temple’s transplant services. In a 2006 series on organ transplants, the Los Angeles Times reported that Temple had found a way to move prospective heart recipients ahead in the queue by saying they were sicker than they actually were, a practice that’s unfair to those lower on the list, but one that might boost volume and thus revenue—and, of course, help Temple’s own patients. The Times also reported that Temple’s story has “never been publicly disclosed.” The public did not know that the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS ), a private, nonprofit group that has a federal contract to ensure safety and equity in the nation’s transplant system, had disciplined the hospital. In 2002, UNOS found more evidence that the hospital was inflating its patients’ conditions, and in November of that year placed the hospital on “confidential probation.” The probation ended in January 2006, which means that it spanned the time that Temple and KYW were producing and airing their award-winning specials promoting the hospital’s transplant services.

The clever packaging and convergent marketing that come with TV-hospital partnerships fly in the face of a consumer empowerment movement for transparency in health care, pushed by some academics, employers, and patient advocacy groups, that is beginning to take root in the U.S. The movement envisions that educated patients will take responsibility for choosing the best care by using scientific and objective data—if data are available. But when patients get the impression through branding activities with local news stations that hospital A is superior, data that show hospital B is really better may have little meaning. In fact, such data may be overlooked entirely by TV news departments as well as patients. The tremendous investment being made to devise fair and useful health care metrics may well be wasted because television’s complicity in hospital branding activities will ultimately overwhelm those efforts.

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.