Gone are the days when advertising medical services
was completely taboo. However, there is still a tension between promoting your
practice, particularly online, and complying with professional standards. Earlier
this year, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) outlined
to enforcing compliance with advertising standards. With a renewed focus on
advertising compliance, and significant penalties for breach, it is
important to understand what you can do to promote your practice while
staying within the law.
What is advertising?
Advertising of healthcare services is covered under the
Health Practitioner Regulation National Law 2009 (National Law).
The definition of advertising under the National Law and regulations
is very broad. It includes all forms of printed and electronic media that promotes a health service and
includes any public communication using television, radio, billboards,
pictorial representations, mobile communications and other displays, internet
and social media.
to AHPRA, the aim of regulating advertising of healthcare services is to
protect the public from false or misleading claims and to help ensure people
can make informed decisions about their healthcare. Regulations are also aimed
at any communications that might offer inducements or encourage indiscriminate
or unnecessary use of health services. Areas to watch in particular are patient
testimonials; before and after photographs; discounts, prizes and similar
incentives; and use of protected specialist titles. We discuss these issues
is not acceptable for a medical practitioner to use testimonials in their own
include all positive statements about the practitioner or practice as well as recommendations,
or statements about the clinical aspects of a regulated health service.
While you are not required to remove positive comments from
other platforms outside your control (such as ratings sites), you should not repost any compliments
from social media platforms of other individuals or entities as these too will
likely be seen as testimonials. Further, you should not encourage patients to
post positive comments about you on any sites.
Rewards and inducements
Inducements, including rewards such as gift vouchers or
discounts for referrals, are
problematic because they may encourage indiscriminate or unnecessary use of
Discounts are only
permitted if the full cost of the treatment is advertised and the associated
terms and conditions of the discount clearly stated. Advertising payment plans, which are sometimes offered by
medical practitioners for elective, non-Medicare billable procedures, should
also be avoided to the extent they may be seen as encouraging indiscriminate
use of health services.
Photographs and images
Guidelines for Advertising Regulated Health Services identify a number of issues with using images,
particularly before and after photographs. These may be misleading and could be
seen to induce an unreasonable expectation of benefit. They also raise issues
of privacy and consent. Patients may consent to the use of images but consent
must be informed and free from any inducement.
Live streaming of surgery by medical practitioners on social
media platforms has recently been reported in sections of the media as becoming
more commonplace. Even if patients are asked to consent prior to the procedure
being performed, this practice is inherently risky as the patient is
unconscious at the time of posting and unable to view any footage before it is
published or to interrupt the live stream.
If questions arose that consent to live streaming was linked
to offers of discounts for treatment then this practice could also be in
contravention of s133(b) of the National Law. Further, some medical
colleges have policies which preclude the live transmission of surgery
where the “operator could receive an additional fee or benefit, direct or indirect,
for the performance of a live procedure”. This prohibition could apply to streaming
of procedures on social media platforms which may be considered a form of
Other issues to watch
Another concern may be the use of ‘protected’ titles and
endorsements. For example, unless you have completed suitable specialist training
recognized by AHPRA and the Medical Board of Australia (MBA) you should not use
as the term ‘specialist’ as this could mislead the public into thinking
you hold the same level of expertise and training as a practitioner with AHPRA
and MBA-recognised specialist training.
regulators such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the
Therapeutic Goods Administration also administer laws that regulate how medical
practitioners advertise regulated health services and therapeutic goods. These
are also addressed in the AHPRA Guidelines.
The approach being taken by AHPRA to
breaches of the Guidelines
In April 2017 AHPRA outlined its advertising compliance
strategy in a document Responsible advertising in healthcare: Keeping people safe.
AHPRA has indicated it will adopt a risk-based and proportionate approach to
its oversight of advertising of regulated health services. It will take strong
action on breaches it considers raise concerns about actual patient harm,
target particularly vulnerable patient groups or make misleading claims such as
offering miracle cures.
Key tips for advertising:
- Review AHPRA’s Guidelines for Advertising Regulated
Health Services to understand your responsibilities.
- Avoid using language or images which may mislead
or cause a patient to have an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment.
- Do not use testimonials or repost positive
comments from other social media platforms.
- Set your website and other social media platform
settings so that users are unable to leave comments.
article was first published in Medical Observer. Read the
you require advice on your obligations around advertising in your practice, visit
or for immediate advice, call our Medico-legal Advisory Service (MLAS) on 1800 128 268.
You can also read AHPRA’s Advertising:
Strategy, legislation and guidelines.
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