Sunday, August 24, 2008

Legal and Ethical considerations in medical advertising

The medical profession has a very special relationship with society and its citizens. This is reflected in one of its earliest statements of how to practice - the Hippocratic Oath. In modern times Parliament has sought to codify what is expected of the medical profession and those promoting health related remedies to the public. In addition to the law, with its threat of sanctions if breached, there are ethical pronouncements that a medical practitioner in good conscience should follow.

These legal and ethical considerations cover both offline and online advertising and restrict what you can legally or ethically do on your website or through advertising in general.

Depending on the State or Territory you operate (NSW, Qld, Vic, WA) in there are likely to be different provisions that prescribe what you can do. They sound a little like the ten commandments:
  • you should not make false or misleading statements (Trade Practices Act and State based Fair Trading Acts)
  • you should not refer to or cite testimonials from previous patients
  • you should not say you are better than any other medical practitioner
  • you should not promote yourself or business in a vulgar or excessive manner
  • you should not offer gifts or inducements to people to undergo treatment
  • you should not advertise in a way that is unprofessional or likely to bring the profession into disrepute
  • you should not create an unjustified expectation of beneficial treatment
  • you should not promote the unnecessary or inappropriate use of medical services
  • you should not advertise a therapeutic good (eg a drug) in a way that is likely to lead a consumer to self diagnose or inappropriately treat a serious disease
  • you should not advertise a therapeutic good so as to claim they are safe, cannot cause harm or have no no side effects
You can look up Acts of Parliaments on a useful service called AustLII - you will find most of these prohibitions in the Medical Practice Act of your State. There is still a lot that you can do. This list is from the Victorian Medical Practitioner's Board Advertising Guidelines:
  • a factual statement of the service(s) and/or any product(s) offered;
  • contact details of the office of the medical practitioner, including e-mail or website addresses and telephone numbers;
  • a statement of office hours regularly maintained by the medical practitioner and the availability of after hours services;
  • non-enhanced photos or drawings of the medical practitioner or his/her office;
  • the availability of wheelchair access to any premises to which the advertisements relate;
  • a statement of any language(s), other than English, fluently spoken by the medical practitioner or another person in his/her office;
  • a statement about fees charged, bulk billing arrangements or other insurance plan arrangements, and installment fee plans regularly accepted;
  • a statement of the names of schools and training programs from which the medical practitioner has graduated and the qualifications received;
  • any special fields of practice for which the medical practitioner is recognized by a specialist medical college which has been accredited by the Australian Medical Council and/ or is a participant in the Committee of Presidents of Medical Colleges, including The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners;
  • a list of the medical practitioner’s publications in educational journals;
  • a statement of the teaching positions currently or formerly held by the medical practitioner, together with relevant dates;
  • a statement of the accreditation or certification of the medical practitioner with a public board or agency, including any affiliations with hospitals or clinics;
  • any statement providing public health information encouraging preventative or corrective care; and;
  • advice that consumers should seek information from their general practitioner or seek a second opinion before undertaking a medical procedure or course of treatment.
The ACCC, which plays a role in advertising, also has some guidance in this area:
  • ensure content and context of all promotional statements are honest and accurate;
  • although not necessarily illegal, avoid or use cautiously, self-evident exaggeration and ‘puffery’ in healthcare advertising;
  • carefully consider how ordinary members of the target audience will receive the promotion.
  • be aware that some target audiences may have particular vulnerabilities;
  • do not advertise advantages of services or products that are based on guesses or predictions unless there is good reason to believe they will come true and have some facts or figures to back them up; and
  • if advice is provided in an advertisement to help a person assess whether they suffer from a condition, make it clear that it does not replace a detailed medical examination and consultation.
The Therapeutic Goods Act and Regulations contains further guidelines on advertising of medical devices to consumers, prescription medicines to medical practitioners and cosmetic claims to consumers. Finally the AMA also has a Position Statement on direct to consumer advertising.

These may help guide what content you include on your website. Anyway enough about the content. Let's spend some more time on some web optimisation techniques.

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