Digital Marketing for dentists or orthodontic practice is a great way to increase your reach and to expand your business. If you go in unprepared, it is also a good way to land yourself in hot soup. Why, you ask? It’s because the advertising of regulated health services is strictly governed by National Law.
What does this mean?
The AHPRA or Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, established these guidelines to protect the public and to help dentists and orthodontists to better understand the do’s and don’ts of advertising their services. But this law applies to all other parties that may be involved in the advertising of regulated health services, including third-party advertising agencies, non-registered practitioners, individuals, and corporations.
AHPRA guidelines were created primarily to give consumers a chance to make informed choices when purchasing or subscribing to a regulated health service. In addition to being a guide on how you, the health practitioner, should advertise your services, these guidelines also help to inhibit the use of health care services indiscriminately and prevent the deception of the public via misleading advertisements.
As a licensed medical practitioner, it is your responsibility to see to it that your advertisements meet the guidelines and do not go against any AHPRA regulations. Failure to do so will attract a $5,000 fine for non-registered practitioners and additional disciplinary action for registered practitioners. It’s much worse for corporations who will have to part with a hefty $10,000 if they breach the guidelines.
Regardless of how much income your practice brings in, this is not a stain you want on your reputation.
With that in mind, it is important to learn precisely what is required of you when it comes to advertising your practice.
6 Things You Can Do In an Ad
Titles are not only allowed in advertising, but they’re also encouraged. That said, it is the imperative of the medical practitioner to ensure that the misuse of a protected title does not occur in their advertisement(s) as this would be a direct contravention of the National Law.
For instance, the title ‘doctor’ should be used cautiously by unregistered practitioners since it has great potential to mislead your patients. If you decide to adopt the title, follow it up with a reference to your health professional to prevent confusion. For example, Dr. John Doe (Dentist) clearly shows that Dr. Doe is a dental specialist and thus eradicates any confusion concerning his health profession. Clarity is key, not just for the sake of abiding by the law, but for the sake of communicating clear and accurate information to the masses.
2. Announce Your Qualifications and Memberships
Advertising memberships and qualifications are allowed provided it does not mislead or imply that you are more skilled and/or experienced than you are. You should also be careful not to advertise professional qualifications that promote a particular therapeutic product as this would be clearly interpreted as an executive endorsement, which is illegal as per the Therapeutic goods advertising code 2007.
To be on the safe side, memberships and qualifications should only be advertised if:
• It is appropriate to put them in advertising material;
• They are easy to understand;
• They are current, credible, verifiable, and used in a manner that is relevant to your practice, and;
• You are skilled and/or experienced in the services they advertise.
Keep in mind that specialist skills and endorsements do not constitute your primary qualifications and memberships.
3. Announce Any Specialties and Endorsements
Specialities and endorsements are a practitioner’s way of letting their patients know that they’re either qualified to engage in certain specified fields or that their scope of practice is wider than those of other practitioners. In any case, it is unlawful for a registered practitioner to refer to themselves using the term ‘specialist’ in an advertisement if they’re not registered as specialists.
Furthermore, practitioners who claim to be qualified to hold endorsements they do not possess are also liable to be punished. It doesn’t stop there either. Even though National Law primarily prevents the misuse of specific titles, phrases such as ‘specializes in’ are also considered in the same breath since they tend to imply that the practitioner has greater skill or experience than others even when it’s not the case.
Phrases like ‘have substantial experience in’ and ‘has worked primarily in’ are more preferable options that don’t automatically hint at any specialities or endorsements. Once again, clarity is of the utmost importance here.
4. Back Your Claims with Scientific Information
Using the scientific information in your ads is a great way to gain credibility, but only if you do it right. National Law provides that scientific information is allowed in advertising provided it meets the following criteria:
• It should be unbiased, accurate, and non-misleading
• It shouldn’t have jargon or any other terminology that wouldn’t be readily understood by the masses
• It should be from a reputable source that is verifiable
• It should properly reference its sources, i.e., the researchers involved, the sponsors behind it, and the
academic publication in which it featured.
5. Advertise Medical (Therapeutic) Products
The advertising of therapeutic goods including medicine, medical equipment, blood, blood products, and biologicals is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Information about therapeutic products should be factual and current, not to mention only advertised if relevant to your practice. Advertising therapeutic products are governed by their own (quite frankly, expansive) set of laws in the Price of information code of practice, the Therapeutic Goods Regulations 1990, the Therapeutic Goods Regulations 1989, and the Therapeutic goods advertising code 2007 as well.
6. Reveal Price Information
Advertising price information is tricky and requires you to be fully candid without exceptions. Since pinning a price on a given regulated health service is difficult due to the presence of variables in the process and/or the availability of individual services, it is advisable to be clear about what out-of-pocket costs might be incurred and the variables that may influence the advertised price.
With regards to providing key differentiators, using phrases like “lowest” or “as low as” when advertising regulated health services or simply omitting to mention the total cost of an instalment payment plan could land you into trouble with the law.
5 Things to Avoid When Advertising Dental Services
1. Misleading Information
Information that is inaccurate may affect patients adversely whether it is physically, psychologically, or financially. Misleading advertisements may include information that has been falsified, modified, or purposely omitted for the sole purpose of creating a better image for the business. According to the ACCC, the effects of false advertising can have long-lasting effects on the patients and as such, your advertisement should not be broadcasted if:
• It states false titles and endorsements that have not been awarded to the practitioner and/or imply that they possess more qualifications and experience that is the case
• It advertises unproven health benefits of a particular regulated health service
• It purposely omits or falsifies information by use of emphasis, contrast, and comparison
• It compares health services from different providers in either the same profession or a different one in a manner that may be considered deceptive or misleading.
2. Gifts, Discounts, and Other Inducements
It is illegal to use free offers, discounts, and other gifts to attract patients without fully disclosing the terms and conditions that come with it. A ‘free’ offer ceases to be free when the business recoups the expense through a price hike in another area. Therefore, stating that the offer is ‘free’ without explicitly stating the conditions attached to the offer may be in contravention of the National Law.
To avoid any trifles with the law, use clear, easily understood language that is devoid of jargon and that clearly states the conditions and limitations of the offer.
3. Offering Unreasonable Expectations
Some uncouth practitioners may take advantage of the vulnerability of patients in their time of need. Regulated health services should at no point be advertised in a way that exaggerates their benefits or promises unachievable results. In fact, your advertisement will be in direct violation of these AHPRA guidelines for dentist practices if:
• It does not fully disclose the health risks associated with the treatments offered by your clinic
• It contains information that is unnecessary and may lead the public to believe that their health is at risk if they do not seek the health service
• It does not contain the necessary warning statement that is mandatory for invasive surgical and nonsurgical procedures
• It expressly implies that the named treatment is magical, miraculous, a cure-all, or a sure-fire remedy
• It promotes a ‘special skill’ of the practitioner that is exclusive to them and stands to benefit the patient
• It creates expectations of exaggerated results and recovery periods.
Though the definition of a testimonial isn’t provided by National Law, any positive statement that serves to benefit the reputation of the practitioner or their clinic can be described as a testimonial and is therefore explicitly banned from use in advertising regulated health services.
Testimonials are prohibited, whether it’s on the clinic’s social media page, television, radio, or the company website. A practitioner is also prohibited by National Law from quoting testimonials from other websites and social media using testimonials to advertise regulated health services.
It, therefore, goes without saying that using testimonials in your advertisements will lead to problems with law enforcement. Also, do not encourage your patients to leave testimonials on your company website as these will breach the guidelines. Instead, there are several independent forums where they can share information about practitioners as a way of providing useful information to other health service consumers.
5. Promoting the Indiscriminate Use of Your Services
Directly or even indirectly encouraging the indiscriminate use of the health services is in direct breach of AHPRA guidelines. Simply put, under no circumstances should your advertisement encourage the public to seek unnecessary health services. To that effect, you should ensure that your advertisements do not:
• Use language that encourages people to seek health services in order to “look better” or “feel confident”
• Use time-limited offers that compel the public to make decisions based on urgency and money instead of their health needs
• Use promotional techniques such as the ones used to incentivize people to buy; these include the use of vouchers, coupons, online deals, etc.
• Use bonuses and prizes to promote the consumption of therapeutic products and health services even when they do not require them
• Offers unsolicited appointment times
A Word on Social Media
Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn create a legal red zone where caution is highly advised when it comes to advertising regulated health services. As a practitioner, you are directly responsible for the content on all your social media pages even if you did not initially post it. As a result, a careful and constant review is necessary because any posts that breach the National Law guidelines could earn you a hefty fine.
Advertising your dental practice should be undertaken with all the gravity it deserves. Unlike in other lines of works, misleading ads can have severe negative effects on the physical, psychological, and financial well-being of patients. As such, clarity is of paramount importance with honesty and openness coming in a close second.
You should advertise your practice on its own merits and relay clearly and honestly the health services offered and how they can help your patients. You should also advise strongly against the indiscriminate use of these health services and only recommend them to patients who stand to benefit from them. AHPRA guidelines are easy enough to read up on and adhere to, but in case you feel overwhelmed by it all, you can rely on the Dental Growth Academy, which stays abreast of the latest adjustments to the guidelines, to guide you so that your marketing is done in accordance to the law.
When it comes to advertising laws, you’re better off safe than sorry, so ensure that your ads meet the National Law requirements before being broadcast to the masses. The reputation of your business (and a significant amount of money in fines) is at stake, after all.
I hope this helps clear up some of the grey areas around your advertising guidelines.
Kristan ‘By The Book’ Johnson
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