HPCSA MARKETING AND ADVERTISING GUIDELINES
In years gone by, health care practitioners (HCP’s) were not allowed to advertise their services, relying instead on reputation and word of mouth recommendations. Today, the legal landscape has undergone dramatic change and medical professionals have a huge range of marketing and social media options for connecting with patients.
In South Africa, ethical healthcare practice is governed by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) which states that: “In the modern attention-economy, marketing is a reality for any practitioner involved in running a sustainable practice. However, we urge professionals to stay within ethical boundaries when trying to acquire patients to make use of their services.”
Why are the guidelines important for your practice?
The HPCSA Guidelines are mandated in South African Health Legislation and form part of the standards of conduct on which a complaint of professional misconduct can be based. However, the boundaries are blurred and the HPCSA themselves say that: ‘it is impossible, to develop a complete set of specific prescriptions applicable to all conceivable real-life situations. Therefore, HCP’s may have to work out for themselves what course of action can best be defended ethically.’
Clearly then, it is critical that not only you as the practitioner but also the agencies you work with, understand what the HCPSA views as unacceptable marketing.
For starters, healthcare hinges on a trust relationship between patients and practitioners so mainstream and social media marketing must be truthful and factual to help patients make well-informed decisions. This means that HCPs need to be extra cautious about any marketing activity that could be interpreted as being misleading, offering an incentive, or promoting something or someone as superior to others. Here the terms ‘canvassing and touting’ are used, so let’s briefly unpack them:
Canvassing is initiating systematic contact with prospective customers and actively trying to persuade them to support a brand or a business.
Touting is typically what tourists encounter when taxi drivers at an airport persist in offering them the ´best deal´ or the ´greatest hotel accommodation´.
In the healthcare setting, these caveats also restrict 3rd party activity – for example letting patients know that there is free Wi-Fi they can use in practice waiting rooms because this is a service which falls outside the practice’s scope of services. HCPs also cannot brazenly try to poach patients from other practitioners by making bragging claims like ‘Dr K is the best physiotherapist in Cape Town.”
The HPCSA social media guidelines specifically caution HCPs against canvassing or touting on social media platforms or allowing anyone else to do so on their behalf. This means you need to pay careful attention to how you use 3rd party patient testimonials or celebrity endorsements. While these are permissible, they may not be for financial gain which also has implications for influencers promoting your services. In short, any claim must be evidence-based, scientifically sound and generic with the caveat that readers and listeners need to consult a health practitioner in person before acting on any information they receive.
For example, a well-known athlete posts on Instagram saying something like: ‘Three weeks after my knee surgery with Dr Fourie, I am riding my bike again and I feel great!” This is acceptable but posts should mention that each patient experience is unique and that those considering knee treatment options must consult an orthopaedic specialist. The guidelines also detail strict conditions relating to patient consent and disclosure of patient identity. Lastly, something that is often overlooked is that once content is shared online, it is difficult to remove and is likely to remain on the internet permanently.
For more guidelines for platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter, SnapChat, Tiktok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, please take a careful look at the HPCSA ethical guidelines on social media. These highlight that any use of social media should be aimed at patient education and information that positively affects healthcare choices.
Download the guidelines
The guidelines are contained in two booklets.
Booklet 11: Guidelines on over servicing, perverse incentives and related matters
Booklet 16: Ethical guidelines on social media
In our next few blogs we will give more info about other marketing practices on platforms like Medpages, Google My Business and Social Media, so watch this space.