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  • Advertising compliance

    Medical practitioners must adhere to the National Law in advertising regardless of whether they are advertising in print, via a website, via radio, television or via a social media account. Advertising must not:

    • make misleading claims
    • offer an inducement such as a gift or discount (unless the relevant terms and conditions are also included)
    • use testimonials
    • create an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment
    • encourage the indiscriminate or unnecessary use of a regulated health service - that is, "a service provided by, or usually provided by, a health practitioner".

    The Medical Board can impose penalties for breaching the National Law's advertising requirements, including restrictions on an individual's registration and their ability to practise. Medical practitioners may also be liable for a financial penalty - $5,000 for an individual or $10,000 for a corporation. The ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) and the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) also have responsibilities for the laws regarding advertising of health services.

    Medical practitioners who delegate or outsource the responsibility for developing website or social media content remain responsible for ensuring that the content is accurate and complies with National Law. Practitioners are required to review the content of any advertising of their services and to take reasonable steps to prevent non-compliance.

    For instance, testimonials that are posted on practitioner websites or social media accounts (e.g. a practice Facebook page) must be removed. A practitioner is responsible for comments that are posted on their social networking account once alerted to the comment. Content should therefore be reviewed regularly and policies put in place regarding:

    • who determines what is appropriate content
    • who is responsible for reviewing content, and how often
    • responding to complaints
    • responding to social media enquiries and messages.

    Photographs

    The Medical Board has specific guidelines on the use of graphic or visual representations in health service advertising, which includes photographs (of patients, clients or models), diagrams, cartoons and other images. Photographs that are used to advertise treatments:

    "… must only depict a real patient or client who has actually undergone the advertised treatment by the advertised doctor or practice, and who has provided written consent for publication of the photograph in the circumstances in which the photograph is used". Medical Board Guidelines for advertising of regulated health services (Paragraph 6.1)

    Before and after photographs have restrictions placed on them to ensure that, "the public can trust the truthfulness of the images". This means that the images must be taken under consistent conditions, that it must be stated if the photographs have been altered and that it must be confirmed that no other change has occurred (for example, if results have been enhanced by diet and exercise).

    Stock photographs and images of models are not prohibited, providing that the requirements of s.133 of the National Law and the Medical Board guidelines are met, but the Medical Board states that, "practitioners should exercise caution due to the potential to mislead customers". (Paragraph 6.1)

    Warning statements

    Where surgical or invasive procedures are advertised directly to the public, a warning with text along the following lines is required: "Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Before proceeding, you should seek a second opinion from an appropriately qualified health practitioner". (Paragraph 6.2)

    Surgical and invasive procedures are defined in the Guidelines and include procedures that have significant risk, require admission to a day procedure centre or hospital or are elective procedures requiring more than local anaesthetic or sedation. If you are unsure about the applicability of the guidelines in your individual circumstances, you can contact AHPRA for advice.

    Advertising of price information

    This can be a difficult area, particularly for proceduralists. Any information that you provide must be clear and not misleading. Providing price information about the cost of consultations and the relevant Medicare rebates may be straightforward. On the other hand, providing accurate pricing via a website for procedures and inpatient services may be complex due to the variables involved for each individual patient.

    Time-limited and special offers are not permitted. Providing compensation to a journalist or to a print, television or radio outlet for publicity is also prohibited, unless the fact of compensation is clearly expressed. The use of gifts and discounts in advertising is also inappropriate.