Advertorial Paints a Rosy, and Inaccurate, Picture, AOA Says
Knowing that Review of Optometry’s mission is to deliver “optometrists the information they need to provide their patients top quality care in a personally rewarding practice environment,” I was shocked to read the November 15 issue that included paid content from Hubble Contacts espousing the potential benefit for doctors of optometry offering the company’s contact lenses to their patients. As president of the American Optometric Association (AOA), I can be very clear that our organization has not and will not ever dictate doctors’ contact lens prescribing choices, but I also believe it is incumbent upon your publication to provide proper context when writing about a company’s business plans, specifically by citing stories in other outlets that provide evidence of past violations of laws and regulations intended to protect the public.
The advertorial stated that “the company was founded on the ideals of providing the safest form of contact lens wear (daily disposables) to patients” affordably and conveniently, and that its philosophy “supports the same health and safety goals for patients that optometrists pursue each day.” However, stories in national media outlets, including the The New York Times and the business website Quartz, paint a different picture. One details how the writer was able to order contact lenses from Hubble despite never having been prescribed them and giving a fake doctor and practice name, without contact information, for verification purposes. Another cited interviews with eight individuals who suffered adverse events after ordering Hubble contact lenses, and referenced concerns expressed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding companies that seem to rely upon passive verification as a way to switch patients from their prescribed lenses.
Since Hubble Contacts entered the market in November 2016, the AOA has received over 400 complaints from doctors regarding the company’s practices. Those that were of greatest concern to AOA were the cases of patient harm and adverse events. These include instances of patients suffering complications such as neovascularization of the cornea, keratitis, pain and discomfort—all conditions associated with poorly fitting contact lenses.
These cases were directly reported to the FTC by the AOA, so that they could be investigated. Dozens of cases of patient harm have also been directly reported to the FDA and are publicly available for review. We recommend that you take the time to review the Quartz and New York Times stories, as well as the FDA reports, and consider whether your recent Hubble Contacts advertorial provides the reader with adequate context to judge the current claims made by the company.
Years of vigilance, patient education and relentless advocacy by concerned doctors of optometry across the country, coupled with the tireless efforts of the Health Care Alliance for Patient Safety, the National Consumers League, affiliate optometric associations and the AOA, succeeded in bringing attention to serious concerns regarding Hubble Contacts’ business practices. However, one must be aware that the company is able to rely on its access to lobbyists and PR agents in an effort to rehabilitate its image.
By choosing to be a platform for paid content from Hubble Contacts, Review of Optometry becomes a part of Hubble’s efforts to improve its image. The fact that the company is now stating publicly that it supports proper eye exams and fittings for contact lenses could represent a long-overdue change, but questions remain about whether this represents a firm commitment across the entire company, and Review of Optometry missed an opportunity to explore that important question.
In the view of the AOA, Review of Optometry owes it to their readers not to simply pass along current claims made by the company, but instead to place current assertions in context by noting for their audience the serious issues cited above. Other stakeholders, including government regulators, consumer groups, and the AOA and AOA-affiliated associations, could have been contacted to provide much-needed background. Hubble Contacts should also have been required to answer questions about its past documented missteps and whether it has fully given up the flawed business model behind them. If the company is in fact committed to stopping the practices cited above and adhering to key health and safety regulations going forward, it should as a first step fully and publicly account for its past practices.
— William T. Reynolds, OD
We thank Dr. Reynolds for his leadership in fighting to protect the well-being of optometrists and the patients they serve. The complaints he raises against Hubble deserve to be aired and investigated. We’re glad to see the AOA and FTC taking action to do so.
However, his assertion that Review of Optometry should have in some way tempered the content of Hubble’s advertising stems from a misapprehension about the jurisdiction of a publication over such pieces. Simply put, an advertorial is an advertisement, produced outside the editorial branch, and no publication—this one or any other—moderates the content of such a piece. Advertisers have autonomy over their message and must prove through their actions that it rings true.
We do, however, bear responsibility for conveying the difference between our independent editorial content and the paid pieces that industry commissions. We pledge to bring greater clarity to this distinction in the future.