Ethical Marketing In-Line with AHPRA Guidelines
The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) is a Federal Government agency that regulates approximately 630,000 Australian health practitioners in partnership with 15 National Boards.
These 15 boards include:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practice Board of Australia
- Chinese Medicine Board of Australia
- Chiropractic Board of Australia
- Dental Board of Australia
- Medical Board of Australia
- Medical Radiation Practice Board of Australia
- Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia
- Occupational Therapy Board of Australia
- Optometry Board of Australia
- Osteopathy Board of Australia
- Paramedicine Board of Australia
- Pharmacy Board of Australia
- Physiotherapy Board of Australia
- Podiatry Board of Australia
- Psychology Board of Australia
AHPRA’s primary role involves:
- Publishing the national register of practitioners
- Managing the registration and renewal processes for health practitioners and students
- Receiving complaints about a registered health practitioner or student
- Managing investigations into the professional conduct, performance or health of registered health practitioners (except in NSW where this is conducted by the Health Professionals Councils Authority and in Queensland where this may be undertaken by the Queensland Health Ombudsman)
- Working with the Health Complaints Commissions in each state and territory to deal with complaints and concerns
The primary role of the National Boards is to protect the public and they set standards and policies that all registered health practitioners must meet.
Who needs to register as a health practitioner?
Anyone who calls themselves any of the ‘protected titles’ in the National Law, such as ‘chiropractor’, ‘medical practitioner’, ‘midwife’ or ‘psychologist’, must be registered with the corresponding National Board.
It is an offence to call yourself one of the protected titles, and it is also an offence to hold yourself out to be a registered practitioner when you are not, or use symbols or language that may lead a reasonable person to believe that you are registered.
AHPRA and its role in advertising
The organisation’s mission is to develop a system that has public safety at its heart. This means that more than 630,000 registered health practitioners are expected to follow professional standards of practice set by their health profession board and this includes ethical advertising that adheres with the National Law.
“The Australian public is entitled to receive good quality information about their healthcare services. Health practitioners, as trusted professionals, have regulatory obligations when advertising a regulated health service.” [Source: AHPRA]
Under the National Law, a regulated health service or a business providing a regulated health service must not advertise in a way that:
- Is false, misleading or deceptive
- Uses gifts, discounts or inducements without explaining the terms and conditions of the offer
- Uses a testimonial or a purported testimonial
- Creates an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment
- Directly or indirectly encourages the indiscriminate or unnecessary use of regulated health services
There are also restrictions on advertising in a way that identifies a health practitioner as a specialist when they do not hold registration as a specialist or as an endorsed practitioner in a health profession.
- You are responsible for your advertising and must be able to substantiate any claim you make that your treatments benefit patients
- If you do not understand your advertising obligations, then please refer to the explanatory information published by AHPRA and National Boards. You may also wish to seek appropriate advice, for example, from your legal advisor
- If you do not understand whether the claims you have made can be substantiated based on acceptable evidence, then remove them from your advertising. These are serious matters that can have serious consequences for your professional standing
Word to be wary about
- The word ‘cure’
The unqualified use of the word ‘cure’ could breach section 133 unless there is acceptable evidence that a health service cures a condition. It is often not possible to establish a causal connection between providing a health service and subsequent patient improvement. This is because not all improvement in a condition can necessarily be attributed to treatment, there are many intervening factors, relapses frequently occur and the response to treatment varies considerably from individual to individual.
Wording about the potential to reduce the severity of symptoms is often safer, such as “I cannot cure arthritis but I may be able to reduce the severity of the symptoms”.
- The words “can help / improve/ treat” or “effectively treats”
When there is acceptable evidence that a health service can help certain conditions, it may be reasonable to state something like “x treatment or x approach can help / improve these conditions”. When there is limited or inconclusive evidence that treatment can help certain conditions, it is unacceptable to claim or suggest that it can help / improve or treat those conditions. In these cases, it can still be misleading to state that treatment or a particular approach may / might help or improve certain conditions unless the advertisement is clear about the limited or inconclusive evidence.
- The word “safe”
When a treatment is generally considered safe based on acceptable evidence, it may be reasonable to use wording like “x treatment is generally considered to be safe but occasionally may be associated with possible adverse reactions in individual cases”.
It is potentially misleading to state that treatment or a particular approach is safe without also acknowledging that all forms of treatment have the potential for adverse reactions.
- The word “effective”
When there is acceptable evidence that a health service can help certain conditions, it is acceptable to state something like “X treatment or approach has been shown to be effective for the treatment of these conditions”.
When there is limited or inconclusive evidence that treatment has been shown to be effective in the management of certain conditions, it may be reasonable to state something like “there is mixed and / or inconclusive evidence about whether X treatment or approach may be effective in the management of certain conditions”.
Unacceptable advertising statements
Research shows that our care helps to relieve back pain for up to 85% of pregnant women.
Why this statement is unacceptable:
This statement is not supported by acceptable evidence and may mislead consumers to believe that a health service is more effective than stated.
As an incentive to my existing patients to introduce their friends and family to our work, I am offering a $20 discount on the first visit! Just fill in forms on our new website, present the forms to reception and get a $20 discount!
Why this statement is unacceptable:
The offer is not accompanied by any terms and conditions and does not contain information about all costs involved and out of pocket expenses or variables to the advertised price.
For optimal results prevention of recurrence is the key. These sessions are referred to as Tune-up sessions... Tune ups - Every 4th Appointment is Half Price. Our care is one of the things you can do to ensure you are as healthy and as active for as long as you can be.
Why this statement is unacceptable:
These offers may lead people to buy or undergo a regulated health service that they do not need.
- The National Law does not directly regulate social media. However, testimonials used in advertising a regulated health service through social media may contravene the National Law
- There are many opportunities for consumers or patients to express their views online that are not affected by the National Law restriction on testimonials in advertising. Patients can share views through their personal social media such as Facebook or Twitter accounts or on information sharing websites or other online mechanisms that do not involve using testimonials in advertising a regulated health service
- For example, consumer and patient information sharing websites that invite public feedback / reviews about experience of a regulated health practitioner, business and / or service are generally intended to help consumers make more informed decisions and are not considered advertising of a regulated health service
To clarify, practitioners are not responsible for removing (or trying to have removed) unsolicited testimonials published on a website or in social media over which they do not have control.
Statement from AHPRA CEO Martin Fletcher 16 May 2018
‘Websites and social media have increasingly evolved into major marketing tools,’ he said.
‘The National Boards and AHPRA recognise that these sites provide opportunities for patient feedback but advertisers have a legal and professional responsibility to make sure they don’t use testimonials unlawfully in advertising.’
Using testimonials to advertise regulated health services is prohibited under the National Law because they are not usually a balanced source of information, and typically include a narrow selection of positive comments about patient experiences. Also the outcomes experienced by one patient do not necessarily reflect the likely outcomes for others, so a testimonial doesn’t tell the whole story.
‘Our law bans using testimonials to advertise but there are ways advertisers can use positive patient reviews and feedback,’ Mr Fletcher said.
‘Comments about friendly staff, plenty of parking or extended opening hours, for example, can be used to advertise a regulated health service but under the law advertising cannot include testimonials about clinical care.’
Evaluate your advertising
Think about your advertising from a patient’s point of view:
- Could it be misleading?
- Does it tell them everything they need to know?
- Could it create an unrealistic expectation of what your treatment might do for them?
- Is the information better explained in a consultation?
- Have you verified any third party information (ie. information sourced online)?
You can …
The advertising guidelines do not preclude you from advertising your practice. They simply prevent the use of testimonials and misleading information. You can and should actively market your practice, brand, products and services to include some or all of the following:
- Hosting events
- Speaking at events
- Local area marketing
- Publishing articles
- Promoting your business online
- Presenting education sessions
- Marketing your services to GPs
- Having attractive signage
You just have to conduct these activities in ethical ways that don’t contravene the National Laws.
For more information, please visit the AHPRA website: www.ahpra.gov.au.
Megan Walker is the Owner and Director of Market Savvy, the health promotions and marketing agency www.marketsavvy.com.au. Megan specialises in developed ethical marketing strategies for allied health practitioners in-line with AHPRA guidelines.
Please note that the information provided here is sourced from the AHPRA website and its associated entities. This information does not constitute advice.
I will be hosting the Market Savvy Health Marketing Challenge Tuesday 5 February 2019 for five months. Over this time, you will spend an hour per week learning and implementing your own marketing program that will give you a proven marketing process of attracting the right clients, converting your prospects into sales using ethical selling techniques for your whole team, retaining your clients and turning your clients into loyal referral sources. Building your lead funnel is fundamental to running a successful business. All recommendations align with AHPRA guidelines.
Contact Megan Walker
At Market Savvy we specialise in health and not for profit marketing. Just sing out if you would like any further information on our services. Email megan[@]marketsavvy.com.au or phone 0417 602 390.