Skip to content

Making an informed choice: breast cancer screening

31 October 2012

My heart sank last week to read that  Copenhagen-based Professor Peter Gotzsche had announced his findings that breast screening results in unnecessary mastectomy and doesn’t justify the ends, describing breast screening as a ‘public health scandal’. This kind of emotive language is understandable from a scientist’s perspective, but for a potential patient, hearing this can be frightening and off-putting.

Thankfully, this week a full report from Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health is announced with measured recommendations, namely that better and up-to-date information needs to be provided to women who are invited for breast screening. This seems sensible, feasible and fair. At Forster, we worked with women in North London from lower social economic groups where screening rates are low. In more affluent areas, take up of screening tends to be higher. To balance out this inequality, there is a clear need for better communications, engagement and outreach among women living in less affluent areas.

If a woman reads the detail of Professor Gotzsche’s study, examines other relevant data and makes the informed decision not to be screened, then it’s not my job as a marketer to change her mind. But this isn’t how most people make decisions about their health. The women we spoke to were scared of cancer, but also scared of treatment, of disfigurement, and of screening itself. Our job was to help them to understand the facts behind that fear – that most women who are screened don’t have cancer, and therefore aren’t diagnosed. But also to help them understand that most cancer found in screening is treatable, and that most women in their area are being screened.

The point is that marketing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Marketing is used to promote public health exists in the context of conversations at the school gates about the perceived dangers of childhood jabs, over glasses of wine on forms of contraception, snatched over the heads of children at teatime on whether a cough is bad enough to see the GP. Good marketing powerfully conveyed and from relevant organisations, is essential to make sure that the public has the information at its finger tips to make informed decisions.

I’m not concerned if well-informed people take particular decisions about their healthcare that aren’t always rooted in medical science. After all it’s their choice. But I do care if those decisions are based on poor quality information, myths and fear mongering. And I also care if those decisions result in other people, and other people’s children, getting sick. This is what happened with the now discredited furore over the safety of the MMR vaccine –prior to which cases of measles had fallen, and after which, cases soared.

Marketing and communications can play a vital part in helping the public understand health issues. I’m not heralding marketing as a cure-all, but it’s also clear that effective marketing is an essential part of good health. Understanding how people receive and process these messages is vital to improving the way we communicate and ultimately building better public health.