The sick and famous go to bat for cures Endorsements: Celebrities are lending their good names to the hospitals and medical procedures that cured what ailed them.

December 30, 1997|By Jennifer Steinhauer | Jennifer Steinhauer,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE Sun staff writer Carl Schoettler contributed to this article.

Celebrities have long endorsed sodas, breakfast cereal and clothes, so is it surprising that they are weighing in on angioplasty?

Increasingly, celebrities are lending their names to hospitals and medical programs, often as an expression of gratitude for helping them through a personal medical crisis.

Present and past Orioles Eric Davis and Boog Powell have urged self-testing for colon cancer in a promotional campaign sponsored by the University of Maryland Medical Center, WJZ-TV Channel 13 and Giant Pharmacies. Neither Davis nor Powell was treated at Maryland, but Davis' cancer was diagnosed there.

TV talk show host Larry King's dramatic tale of heart trouble appears in print and radio advertisements for New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Singer Gloria Estefan has done radio spots detailing how New York's Hospital for Joint Diseases repaired her broken back.

From the perspective of the hospitals, many of which have used everything from a room with a view to gourmet food as selling points in an intensely competitive market, famous faces from emergency room visits gone by offer yet another way to market their services. Celebrities are only too aware of their own brand names, and are often happy to help out pro bono because sometimes the medical centers have saved their lives. Often they're the ones who suggest doing the endorsements.

Captain Kirk of "Star Trek," William Shatner, has frequently spontaneously praised the University of Maryland's Tinnitus Center on national television.

Tinnitus is chronic ringing, buzzing or whistling in the ears that probably would have prevented Captain Kirk from becoming an astronaut, let alone commanding the USS Enterprise. A UM doctor developed a "white noise" therapy to treat tinnitus such as Shatner's.

"He reached many worlds before he found us," said Ira Allen, a medical center spokesman.

Estefan, lead singer of the Miami Sound Machine, broke a vertebra when a truck ran into the band's bus in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains in 1990. Now, in radio spots in English and Spanish, she details how the Hospital for Joint Diseases helped her get back on her feet.

"She is like part of the family here," said Andrea Smith, director of public affairs.

"When she was in that bus accident that almost ruined her career, she was brought here to have the surgery that brought her back to being as gorgeous and successful as she is. It is an enormous help to us that she allows us to use her name.

"Tony Randall has done things," Smith said. "Peter Max did a poster because one of our doctors helped him. They ask the doctor, 'What can I do for you?' "

King's advertisements for New York Cornell are written in a snappy cadence that imitate his own. "Los Angeles. September. Larry King is in the middle of planning a wedding. It hits him. A feeling which feels exactly like a heart attack," the copy reads. "He and his new wife [they got married in the CCU in Los Angeles] flew Medevac 3,000 miles to New York." From there, angioplasty, recovery, the development of the Larry King Heart Foundation to help people who cannot afford good care and a plug for the hospital.

"It is our way to really stand out," said Judy Lotas, a partner at Lotus Minard Patton McIver, the hospital's advertising agency.

Baltimore's St. Joseph Medical Center uses "real patients" in radio ads now being broadcast on six stations.

A patient named "John" describes his satisfaction with "port access heart surgery," a procedure that allows surgeons to reach the heart without breaking through the rib cage.

Sinai Hospital also has occasionally used the testimonial of "real" people in hospital brochures.

At Johns Hopkins Medical Center, which often treats celebrity patients, a public relations person said discreetly: "As a matter of policy we are very, very respectful of all of our patients' privacy and confidentiality and we just don't think it's appropriate to attempt to exploit their relationship with Hopkins as a marketing tool. That's just our policy."

Not every marketing expert is fond of the celebrity approach. "I think it is a bad trend," said Gil Bashe, chief executive of CommonHealth Worldwide. "Hospitals don't have identities in this country any more. They are very de-personalized. So they are trying to latch onto personalities to create them for themselves. But at the end of the day, consumers want to know what their core competency is."

Bashe said it would be better for hospitals to stress their staffs and their technology, which would give consumers more confidence than the recalled experience of a well-known patient: "This approach begs the question, 'If I am in New York Hospital, am I going to get the Larry King treatment?' "

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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