Healthcare Marketing Ethics: A Checkup

Healthcare Marketing Ethics

Ethical healthcare marketing has to answer tough questions

When does targeting become an invasion of privacy?

When does doctor advertising become doctor advocacy?

When does information sharing become marketing?

As consumerism presses deeper into healthcare, competition is increasing – and marketers will naturally want to create content that’s more aggressive.

Here are a few reminders – and 2 pieces of advice.

The old standards

For generations (since 1847), the AMA said that any advertising by doctors was unethical. Over time, the standards for ethical medical communication have changed, but they are still based on these guidelines:

No superlatives. This includes subjective phrases like “World famous,” or “pioneer.”
No promises. Even testimonials, which are thought to suggest a guaranteed result.
No billboards. In other words, use media that can share complete information.
Just the facts. Content is supposed to focus on provable statements, such as the provider’s name, credentials, skills, costs, and contact data.
No comparisons. This means doctors can’t suggest they have a professional advantage compared to anyone else.
No funny stuff. Getting paid for endorsements was a no-no. So was hiring an agency.

In 1980, The FTC ruled that AMA restrictions restrained trade and inhibited competition and things began to change. But today, healthcare marketing is still regulated by multiple agencies Pharmaceutical marketing is regulated by the FDA. The FTC can regulate ads for OTC medications. Even state Attorneys General sometimes get involved in false or misleading ad campaigns. And the Stark Law continues to restrict how doctors handle communication related to referrals.

With regulation and oversight in flux, how can healthcare marketers develop content with the confidence that they’re not risking a regulatory slap on the wrist – or worse?

Many still cling to the old standards. But more and more, healthcare brands – from large hospitals and health systems to small group practices – are seeking ways to honor the spirit of ethical conduct, but still build relationships with patients.

Which brings us to HIPAA.

The holes in HIPAA

HIPAA regulates the use of patient information. The original intent of the act was twofold: 1. Reduce administration and speed the flow of data, and 2. Protect patient privacy. And therein lies the conflict.

Electronic data interchange (EDI) has helped to reduce administration, but has also made it easier to access patient data – and target patients based on their medical history.

It’s also worth noting that HIPAA’s Privacy Rule doesn’t disallow healthcare providers from marketing to their own patients. If you’re ready to read a really wonky but well-presented report, here you go.

The point: HIPAA has holes. For example, the HHS (which oversees HIPAA), says that a doctor “with a new anti-snore device sends a flyer to all of her patients – regardless of whether they had previously sought treatment for that ailment. This plan is specifically presented as allowable marketing under HIPAA.”

Free piece of advice #1: Let the technology – and the message – do the talking.

We agree with the spirit of the AMA’s original thinking: There’s too much at stake in human health for the use of inflated and subjective marketing content.

Our practices focus on using technology for precise delivery of marketing messages that are true and verifiable.

Like this TV spot for Connecticut’s anti-opioid campaign. Which also included a DIY marketing kit for prescribers.

Free piece of advice #2: Address doctor ratings on social media now

As doctor ratings continue to drive patient inquiries, we arrive at the doorstep of sizable issue: physician brand management.

With so many consumers generating reviews, it’s only a matter of time before more doctors will need to take an active role in developing their own image, message, and platform. An extreme example is Dr. Mike – who has piled up millions of Instagram followers with some self promotion that Tony Robbins would envy.

Our suggestion: Address social media content management now. Despite the fact that many physicians don’t want to engage in marketing, they should develop a reputation management strategy involving:

1. SEO.
2. Social media.
3. Patient engagements policies – especially with email.

Of course, it’s too big a topic for a blog. If you’d like to discuss it, we’re always open for a beverage.