Medical marketing – What are the rules and how to stay within them

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With the advent of the internet, and when considering the opportunities that now exist for medical businesses to market in digital spaces, the occasion for information, and misinformation, to be made available to patient and client audiences is greater than ever before.

Today, many patients are unsatisfied to blindly accept a referral on the word of their general practitioner or other health providers. Digital technology has enabled patients the ability to conduct their own research.  Their research enables them to discover treatment alternatives, available medical professionals and their reputation, consider reviews and practice successes.  The decision-making process is firmly at the patients’ fingertips.,

As a result, the marketing of a medical business using both new platforms, and the more traditional ones, has become heavily regulated to protect the integrity of the industry for the consumer.

The regulatory structure in a nutshell

In Australia, there are 15 national boards responsible for registering and setting the standards that health practitioners must meet and for managing complaints and concerns that may arise in the conduct of these practitioners.

In addition, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) works in partnership with these national boards to implement the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (National Scheme), under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law within each state and territory. This all has the aim and mandate of protecting the public[1].

To keep medical businesses within the rules and achieve this mandate, the Guidelines for Advertising a Regulated Health Service were jointly developed. These Guidelines help practitioners, and advertisers or marketers that work with them, understand the rules and their obligations when advertising and marketing to their audiences. The guidelines are publicly available on the Ahpra website.  Ahpro is the regulatory body for policing the guidelines.  If a medical practice strays outside of the Guidelines fines, suspensions and other punishments are being received, the severity of which is deemed by the breach. If you are interested, these guidelines are available for you to read here.

Considering the above, when undertaking the marketing of a medical practice or professional, it is important to comprehensively understand and keep abreast of any amendments to these Guidelines, and how they apply to your medical practice, and then take care to work within them.

The good news is that the rules apply to all practitioners, so the playing field is equal.  It is possible to be highly successful in the marketing and communication of your practice. or profile to your audience, while still staying safely within the rules.

Marketing and advertising within the rules

There are many ways and channels through which to advertise a medical business or profile – and they continue to grow. Traditional methods such as print, radio, television and direct mail remain popular. Recently digital platforms have provided new and innovative ways to advertise to target audiences online. This includes social media platforms, Google pages, websites, eNewsletters and more. There are no rules around which platforms and how many you can use, there are rules however on how your medical practice can use them.

Below are the fundamentals of the rules, an interpretation of what they mean, and examples of how you can remain within the guidelines while still promoting your medical business or service.

Rule 1. You must not be false, misleading or deceptive

This essentially means, in the marketing of your service or profile, you must not promise things you can’t deliver, are not true, or lead a patient to believe that they will achieve an outcome that is unlikely.

An example of where this rule might be breached within marketing is claiming that if an individual has laser vision correction, they will never need to wear glasses again.  This may not be the case for many patients and is creating an unrealistic expectation in the general marketplace on outcomes of the treatment.

Instead, in this example, it is more appropriate to craft language around stating that lifestyle benefits can be achieved with laser vision correction for those that are suitable, and that vision will improve.

The difference is subtle but important – one is making a blanket claim for all which may not be possible. The other is managing expectations.

Rule 2: You must not motivate your audience by offering a gift, discount or other inducements unless you clearly state terms and conditions.

Offering monetary or other types of inducement can influence a patient’s decision to undertake treatment, leading to them possibly choosing the wrong treatment or treatment provider, potentially creating demand for a treatment that is not required. The more complex a service or treatment is, the more relevant this rule becomes and the more heavily it is regulated.

For example, a physiotherapist may offer a discount on a series of massage treatments for general muscle soreness. This is non-invasive and if terms and conditions are clearly stated, is not harmful to the client.

However, if an oncologist was to offer a discount on chemo-therapy treatments per number to their patients to encourage them to undertake more of them for their profit, this would be unethical and harmful to the health of the patient.  Terms and conditions should clearly state this.

Rule 3. Must not use testimonials about your service or business

This rule states that the business must not ask for testimonials, publish, or share them on their platforms. It is felt that this is presenting bias. However, if a testimonial is made on a patient’s own platform, independently, this is allowed.

Therefore, a business cannot share a patient’s Facebook post recommending or commending their business on their business Facebook page. However, the patient can tag the medical practice into the post, therefore, identifying them. A patient can also provide a Google Review on the medical practices Google page and engage with them through online conversation or on their platforms.

An example of breaking this rule would be to place a patient testimonial on the medical practice website.

An example of staying within the rule would be to thank a patient for leaving an independent Google review and to refer other patients to read these reviews for their own knowledge.

Rule 4. Must not create an unreasonable expectation of the benefits of the treatment or service

This rule focuses on the expectations of the patient or client as created by what the advertising and marketing of the medical business or professional promises. Like Rule 1, it is there to make sure that customers are not promised something that cannot be delivered.

For example, if a patient interested in dental teeth whitening was promised by their dental practice marketing that after treatment their teeth would never stain again and be white forever, this would be misleading and a breach of the rule.

However, if the marketing of the teeth whitening service clearly stated that after the treatment that their teeth would be several shades whiter than before, and then would gradually stain again after a time and that they may require further treatments in the future, this would see this dentist marketing within the rules as patient expectations are being managed.

Rule 5. Must not encourage, either directly or indirectly, indiscriminate or unnecessary use of regulated health services

The interpretation of this rule, like all of them, will depend on the type of medical practice or service provided. It is intended to protect a patient from undertaking a procedure or treatment when there is no benefit to them. This once again relies on the integrity of the provider. A medical business can stay within the rules by being clear with each patient on what the benefits are to their clients on a case-by-case basis.  Recommending the best solution in their professional opinion, and in no way being perceived to place pressure on, or influence, their decision.

 In conclusion, although heavily regulated, medical marketing can be exciting.  Clever, responsible businesses within this industry have more opportunity than ever before to communicate, advertise and market to their audiences. If executed with integrity and honesty, modern-day medical marketing presents an opportunity to build a highly successful business with a satisfied patient community.

References

[1] https://www.medicalboard.gov.au/Codes-Guidelines-Policies/Advertising-a-regulated-health-service/Guidelines-for-advertising-regulated-health-services.aspx

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Margot Stolle

Margot Stolle

Margot Stolle is a marketing professional with over 15 years experience within several different industries including: sports and events sponsorship; business and financial planning; and fashion. She also owns and manages her own brand of children's sleepwear which is e-retailed and has experience in designing and editing websites and managing social media platforms.

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