Is The ‘General Hospital’ Cancer Storyline An Ad Campaign For Pharmaceutical Company? Some Doctors Say Yes
Finola Hughes attends The 42nd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards at Warner Bros. Studios.

Is The ‘General Hospital’ Cancer Storyline An Ad Campaign For Pharmaceutical Company? Some Doctors Say Yes

Soap operas, like General Hospital, are well known for their over the top storylines. Occasionally, though, these television shows tackle real life issues that can hit close to home such as cancer.

Currently, ABC’s General Hospital has the character of Anna Devane being treated for polycythemia vera, which is a rare form of cancer. The cancer is so rare that it affects 1.9 out of 100,000 people, according to a story by the CBC. Some doctors began to wonder why a soap opera would write a story about such a rare type of cancer. It was then discovered that the cancer storyline was written in collaboration with the pharmaceutical company Incyte Corporation.

Doctor Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody began to dig further into Incyte Corporation and discovered that the pharmaceutical company and ABC entered into a partnership. Coincidently, Incyte Corporation has only one drug that has been approved by the FDA and it is a drug called ruxolitinib which is used to treat polycythemia vera.

“I was pretty surprised that a daytime soap opera would be talking about a very specific disease that happens to be a rare one. The people who work at these companies are smart people. They have thought about whether or not these kinds of promotions will have a return on their investments. Disease awareness efforts that are funded by the pharmaceutical industry are actually quite common. I wouldn’t call it a public service announcement because I’m not sure that the benefit is to the public. I worry that the benefit of these campaigns is to the company, and the public may, in fact, be harmed.”

General Hospital never actually mentions the drug ruxolitinib, but the writing in the script alludes to what the medication does for people diagnosed with this rare type of cancer. When Anna is told her grim diagnosis on the show, she complains that the doctors treating her only want to deal with treating her symptoms as opposed to dealing with what actually caused her to develop polycythemia vera. According to Incyte Corporation, their drug ruxolitinib treats the genetic component of polycythemia vera. Dr. Prasad was not oblivious to this fact.

“Is that language a subtle promotion of the company’s drugs? Because unlike all of the other ways we treat this condition, which may arguably be thought of as treating the symptoms… only this company’s drug treats what many people believe is the underlying generic driver of the disease.”

Dr. Prasad is concerned that this storyline, backed by Incyte Corporation, will lead to patients being misdiagnosed with polycythemia vera.

“If you got everyone who watches this TV show to go to their doctor and say, ‘Hey, test me for this rare condition,’ you will find a lot of people who look like they have this rare condition, but they probably don’t really have it.”

Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of polycythemia vera and they do appear to be symptoms that are found in many other illnesses.

  • Itchiness following a warm shower or bath
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Excessive sweating
  • Painful swelling of one joint, often the big toe
  • Shortness of breath
  • Numbness, tingling, burning or weakness in extremities
  • Feeling of fullness due to enlarged spleen in upper right quadrant of the abdomen
  • Increased body temperature
  • Sudden loss of weight without an explanation

Do you think that Dr. Prasad’s concerns are valid? Should General Hospital have partnered with a pharmaceutical company and then developed a storyline based on the company’s only FDA-approved drug?

[Featured Image by John Sciulli/Getty Images]

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