Marketing and AHPRA ComplianceOct 20, 2023
If you’re a medical professional in Australia, you may be governed by AHPRA. You’ll know if you are because registration fees are currently due!
AHPRA, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, governs many health professionals in Australia but not all health professions are currently regulated by them. As a radiographer, I need AHPRA registration but as a Sonographer, I don’t.
For those professions that are governed by AHPRA, it’s important to be aware of the AHPRA marketing and advertising regulations.
AHPRA have a list of conditions you need to meet in your marketing. If you don’t, the fines are pretty massive…$60,000 for and individual and $150,000 for a company!
These regulations are in place to help protect against patients being misled and deceived into thinking that they need to see a certain healthcare professional, they need a certain procedure or to give them unrealistic expectations of a potential treatment.
For the most part, if you’re being open and honest in your marketing then you’ve probably already ticked these boxes but let’s go over what the requirements actually are. The following 12 points are directly from the AHPRA Advertising Guidelines.
Information in advertising should not be false, misleading or deceptive.
Information should be:
- clear and honest and include all important details
- accurate and easily understood.
If advertising includes a list of health conditions and makes claims to effectively ‘treat’ or ‘help’ those conditions, the advertising should also make it clear how the treatment helps each condition listed. This includes that it is supported by acceptable evidence, or the claims may be considered false, misleading or deceptive advertising.
Advertising should provide accurate information about risks or potential risks with a treatment or procedure. Failure to do so has the potential to mislead or deceive the public and to create an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment.
Making comparisons in advertising between health outcomes, professions, practitioners or prices can be misleading and deceptive if clear and accurate information supported by acceptable evidence is not provided.
Information about titles, and claims about registration, competence and qualifications of practitioners must be correct or the advertising may be considered false, misleading or deceptive.
A practitioner may only use a protected title if they are registered in that profession. A list of protected titles can be found in the AHPRA advertising guidelines.
While ‘doctor’ or ‘Dr’ is not a protected title, if the title is used in advertising it should state the practitioner’s profession (if they are not a medical practitioner). For example, Dr Jones (dentist) or Dr Lee (osteopath).
Only a practitioner who holds specialist registration in a recognised speciality may use a specialist title in advertising. Practitioners who do not hold specialist registration should be wary of using words or phrases such as ‘specialises in’, ‘specialty’, ‘specialised’ as it is likely to mislead the public to believe the practitioner holds a type of specialist registration approved under the National Law.
In 2023 the National Law was amended and a new section 115A was introduced that affects the use of the title ‘surgeon’ in the medical profession.1 The only medical practitioners who can call themselves 'surgeon' are those holding specialist registration in surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology, or ophthalmology.
Advertising that includes information about pricing should be clear, easily understood, accurate, honest and include the total price – not just initial costs or prices of certain consultations.
Advertising that uses bonuses, discounts, gifts, or prizes may directly or indirectly encourage the unnecessary use of regulated health services. If the value of the prize greatly outweighs the cost and risk of the treatment to the person, it may encourage them to use a regulated health service regardless of clinical need or therapeutic benefit.
Advertising offering a gift, discount or other inducement must:
- state or refer to the terms and conditions of the offer
- ensure terms and conditions are clear and easily understood, accurate and honest, and
- ensure the terms and conditions are easy to find.
Advertising must not use testimonials or purported testimonials, that is, recommendations or positive statements about the clinical aspects of a regulated health service. ‘Clinical aspects’ refers to statements about symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, outcome.
Not all reviews or positive comments made about a regulated health service are considered testimonials. For example, comments about customer service or communication style that do not include a reference to clinical aspects are not considered testimonials for the purposes of the National Law.
Advertisers are responsible for removing testimonials from the advertising they control, including social media platforms advertising their regulated health service (e.g. clinic Facebook page).
Advertising that uses patient stories, patient journeys, or anecdotes from the advertiser about the personal benefit or outcome obtained from treatment may create an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment as the outcomes experienced by one person do not necessarily reflect the outcomes that other people may experience.
Care should be taken when using graphic or visual representations in advertising of regulated health services to ensure they do not create an unreasonable expectation of benefit, as the outcomes experienced by one person do not necessarily reflect the outcomes that other people may experience.
Advertising may be in breach of this section of the National Law if:
- it is not clear how the advertised treatment is responsible for, or has directly caused, the benefit shown in the image
- images are not genuine and/or have been edited or enhanced.
Advertising should not encourage the public to use a regulated health service where there is no clinical or therapeutic need to do so as this is likely to encourage unnecessary use of health services. For example, encouraging people to attend for regular treatment when there is no clinical need or acceptable evidence to support this.
Advertising that promotes time limited offers may directly or indirectly encourage the unnecessary use of regulated health services.
Words or phrases such as ‘don’t delay’, ‘act now before it’s too late’, ‘don’t miss out’, ‘time is running out’, or ‘for a limited time only’ create a sense of urgency, and may be unlawful where they are linked to unsubstantiated claims that a person’s health may suffer if they do not use a regulated health service.
You maybe thinking “well I’m just a sole practitioner with a tiny practice. AHPRA are only concerned about the big guys, they’re not going to bother about coming after me”. Well that’s only half true. From the cases that I have seen, AHPRA haven’t been actively looking for practitioners or practices doing the wrong thing but they’ve been forced to step in because there’s been an anonymous complaint made against someone. Usually these complaints will be from competing practices or practitioners. So yes, you may only be small and AHPRA may not be watching what you're doing but that doesn't meant that someone else isn't.
There's a few points that come up from these guidelines that I want to touch on.
The first is testimonials and reviews: Positive feedback and word of mouth is the fastest way to grow any business, including a healthcare practice. You can still use testimonials in your marketing, just make sure they only make mention of the non-clinical aspect of your work. Things like how friendly the staff are or that there's fantastic parking. As long as the testimonials don't mention any clinical things like the patient's condition, medical investigations or treatments then you can still use them.
Another point to consider in your marketing is that if you're making claims about a treatment (or pathology or anatomy etc), provide references at the bottom of your marketing and possibly even links where people can fact check what you're saying via reliable sources.
One more point I want to make mention of is using urgency in your marketing. To be compliant with the guidelines, it's important to only use urgent language (hurry in, don't miss out, limited time only, etc) where it is actually warranted and where legitimate urgency applies. If you do cosmetic injectables, chances are, there isn't many reasons that someone NEEDS to come in for a treatment RIGHT NOW! If you're an obstetrician though, there are reasons why a patient should hurry in to your clinic. If there has been decreased movement, then it is a legitimate reason that they NEED to seek medical attention NOW.
So what should you do now? It's worth having a look through all of your marketing…your website, social media, flyers, etc, to ensure that everything you’re putting out is AHPRA compliant.
If you have a marketing or social media manager, check with them to see if they’re aware of the restrictions that your marketing needs to adhere to. Many general marketing and social media professionals who don’t specialise in healthcare will likely not have any knowledge about these specific restrictions. A quick conversation may save you a big headache later on.
If you want to learn more about marketing your practice within AHPRA regulations, jump into our PRACTITIONER TO PRACTICE OWNER program. Doors open on the 14th November 2023. Each month we have live training around running your business (including marketing online and offline), using Halaxy and a chance to network with other likeminded healthcare professionals.
I also recently did a Live video in our FREE Practitioner to Practice Owner group about this topic including examples of what you can and can't do in your marketing and advertising. You can watch it here.