2 NJ hospitals battle in court over 'top doc' ads

March 29, 2009 12:37:03 PM PDT
For regional magazines, "top docs" issues are an annual revenue-generating tradition. But a lawsuit in New Jersey federal court shows how they can matter to hospitals, too. For years, Cooper University Hospital in Camden has claimed in advertisements that it has the most highly rated physicians in southern New Jersey. Late last year, Virtua Health Inc., which runs four hospitals in the suburbs, disputed the claim with its own ads.

Now, the highly regarded hospitals are tussling in a court battle that doesn't seem to be winning either many fans.

"To waste money and time in a courtroom over it is crazy," said Richard Tremper, a 46-year-old emergency medical technician on disability leave for kidney disease.

The hospitals have piles of legal documents about their differences, but spokeswomen for both declined to comment on the case last week because of the litigation.

The two sides have had some settlement discussions - including sessions in a judge's chambers over the past two weeks - but there's no certainty they'll lead anywhere.

It's no stretch to say that Cooper is a centerpiece of hope for Camden, which consistently ranks among the nation's poorest and most crime-ridden cities.

Decades ago, when institutions like a Roman Catholic high school, a daily newspaper and a Sears store moved out of the city, Cooper stayed. Its trauma doctors have kept hundreds of shooting victims alive, as well as Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who was flown there after breaking 15 bones and nearly dying in a car crash two years ago.

For years, Cooper has had advertisements claiming to have the most top doctors in the area, citing reports in Philadelphia magazine, New Jersey Monthly, South Jersey Magazine and SJ Magazine.

The top doctors issues are a staple of regional magazines.

"It is one of our strongest, if not the strongest, on the newsstand every year," said Ken Schlager, editor of New Jersey Monthly.

It's also among the top for ad sales, Schlager said. Health care providers do much of the advertising.

All four of the magazines base their ratings on surveys of doctors. The method is sometimes criticized for ignoring what patients think or how patients fare. But the editors say they can help people pick doctors and hospitals.

"We hope that patients could use this as one reference, one source, but also use other references to choose your doctor," said Marianne Aleardi, editor of SJ Magazine.

Last year, officials at Virtua, based in Marlton, began wondering about Cooper's claims.

According to court documents, Virtua employees did searches on both hospitals' Web sites for all the doctors on last year's "top docs" lists. They found more affiliated with Virtua.

The hospital's advertising agency, The Star Group, hired a research firm that verified Virtua's findings. Then, Star built a Web site to report them.

Cooper filed a lawsuit in February disputing the accuracy and independence of the report Virtua cites. The lawsuit claims that Virtua's claims could damage Cooper's reputation and its business. Cooper called on a judge to force Virtua to stop making its top doc claims - and to pay damages.

William Tambussi, a lawyer for Cooper, said the hospital has to defend its turf.

"There's economics that are in play, particularly since we're a hospital of last resort in the city of Camden," Tambussi said. "It's important to preserve the financial integrity of the institution."

Later in February, Virtua responded by suing Cooper, claiming the city hospital's ads are misleading and false and could hurt Virtua. It also wants its adversary to pay damages.

Jeanne Otersen, policy director at Health Professionals and Allied Employees, which represents nurses who work for both health systems, is not impressed by the debate.

She doesn't like that the health care system has hospitals focused on competing with each other.

"To have two hospitals, which are leading hospitals, spending money on lawsuits is appalling," she said.

Eve Weissman, health care campaign coordinator for the consumer advocacy group New Jersey Citizen Action, calls the lawsuits "outrageous" and says the hospitals should be putting their efforts into health care.

So at least the magazine editors feel gratified that their work is taken seriously, right?

Maybe not.

"It doesn't make me feel good," Aleardi said. "I hope they can find a way to resolve it where everyone's happy."

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