A lot has been said against physicians marketing themselves and their services. It is the convention that those practicing in “learned professions” like medicine and law should abstain from advertising or marketing themselves so as to uphold the value of their profession. Advertising has also been deemed to be misleading and likely to influence potential clients.

Most medical board regulations across various countries restrict physicians from self-aggrandizement and have defined rules against advertising themselves. Failure to follow these guidelines lead to the possibility of suspension of their medical licenses.

So the question remains, is there an ethical means of healthcare marketing for physicians and practices without resorting to paid advertising?

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Ethical ways to market your medical practice

It can be argued that just like any other business, providers need to look for ways to grow their medical practice, be it a clinic or hospital. Naturally, most health organizations are looking to organically (non-paid) grow their web presence so as to cast their net wider to reach patients. Considering over 77% of people start with the Internet to make decisions about their health (including choice of doctors), healthcare providers need to be wary about how they manage their online presence so as to not be caught on the wrong foot ethically.

Without impinging on the rules against advertising and self-promotion, here are a few strict practices that you should definitely steer clear off when it comes to health marketing.

  1. Refrain from using superlatives

Unless expressed by patients in their testimonials or reviews of your practice or services, it is best to avoid usage of superlative such as “the best”, “top”, “world-famous”, “most qualified” etc. This can be misleading to patients who may be trying to make a choice regarding their caregiver. It can also have negative consequences if the services do not meet the expectations of patients who read such statements. It is more important to provide patients with details about your practice – qualifications and experiences of the doctors, facilities, actual patient testimonials and experiences, images of the practice, its location and contact information.

  1. Do not promote specific services or medication

“They must get paid to say that”, is a common refrain from many patients when they find doctors openly endorsing certain procedures or medications. It is best to avoid promoting medical procedures, highlighting the benefits of it over others or promoting certain medications to patients online or in your clinic. Health providers are ethically expected to discuss the pros and cons of medical procedures, benefits and risks associated with prescribed medications and not provide only a partial view of the facts.

  1. Do not employ actors to provide patient testimonials

Using actors or fake imagery to portray patient stories or for patient testimonials is disingenuous and seen as an unethical promotion of a medical practice and its services. While it is required to protect a patient’s identity on marketing material, if using actors as representatives of actual patients, it is best to expressly state this by providing a disclaimer to avoid any misrepresentation.

  1. Refrain from showing competitors in a bad light

Promoting your practice should not be done at the expense of denigrating your competitors. Legally, you aren’t permitted to name or provide any indication of another practice when comparing services. However, many providers state that their clinic offers superior services over many other clinics operating in the same city or locality, indirectly defaming their competitor’s reputation. Rather, it would be better to provide on your website information about the services that your practice offers patients and allow them to make an informed choice.

  1. Do not reveal sensitive patient information

Disclosing patient information which would mean revealing their identity is definitely not permissible on your web page or social media pages. When discussing a patient case study, care should be taken to obliterate any mention of  the patient’s name and personal information so as to maintain the utmost confidentiality. Images of actual patients have been used in some cases, particularly on social media, but this can be done only with the consent of the patient.

  1. Avoid being discriminatory in your promotions

In the interest of being inclusive, all content that could be taken to be promotional should not be discriminatory on the basis of colour, sex, financial status or nationality. Any material that is deemed to be partisan, hurtful to patient sentiments or derogatory will have a negative impact on the reputation of your practice. This can be particularly severe and have long-term consequences when it comes to your online reputation.

  1. Stay away from fear-mongering

Ominous declarations about health concerns and treatments are not the right way to gain footfalls or online consultations. Resorting to fear-mongering to persuade patients to opt for new procedures, scans or tests is unethical as it puts patients under duress to make decisions about their health that may not be warranted. Ensure information that you put on your website and clinic is unbiased and informative, rather than being “pushy”.

  1. Paid advertising is a strict no-no

This is a no-brainer. Paying an agent to advertise your practice through newspapers, billboards or online advertisements is strictly prohibited for medical professionals. Especially when these adverts serve to exaggerate the truth with self-titled superlatives and images of medical professionals. Increasing your presence through paid efforts may be a quick way to gain popularity and visibility among potential patients. However, it is seen as unprofessional among the general public.

Advertising a physician or their services is considered to be against the code of medical ethics. However, health providers also have a responsibility to provide the right health information to their patients. Nowadays, the Internet serves as the main source of this information. Therefore, providers and clinics need an online presence, not as a means of marketing or advertising themselves, but to create a channel of communication, for patient education and awareness, to dispel myths, abate health concerns and to continue to deliver care to their patients remotely.

The policies governing advertising of medical professionals still requires clarity, particularly when it comes to the web. Are the policies meant to be for individual practitioners or even hospitals and clinics? What are the rules for health organizations having websites that provide information to patients – about health topics or even their services? What kind of content online is permissible and what is deemed to be promotional? Many of these questions still remain unanswered.

Till such time, the debate rages on.