7 Medical Advertising Rules Your Business Can Learn From
Medical practitioners in Singapore are regulated by strict advertising standards. Yet, these need not be a constraint. In fact, they can benefit your clinic or business regardless of industry.
By Ande Schurr
17 August 2021
We give medical practitioners more trust and respect than any other profession.
Singapore is a highly-developed country with one of the highest standards of health care in the world. It consistently ranks in the top 10.
So if that trust is abused through misleading advertising, there's a lot at stake.
That's why healthcare professionals in Singapore must adhere to a strict advertising code of ethics.
The Singapore Medical Council (SMC) sums up the striking difference between the medical and other industries:
"Blatant advertising may be the norm in the commercial world but not in medical practice."
Singapore Medical Council (SMC) Handbook on Medical Ethics, P135
They caution doctors to keep factual and respectful:
You must not advertise in ways that are ostentatious, offensive, undignified or in bad taste, which would damage the reputation of the profession.
Singapore Medical Council (SMC) Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (2016), P57
Medical practitioners in Singapore, fall within these categories:
Doctors, Dentists, Pharmacists, Nurses, Allied Health Professionals, Optometrists and Opticians, and TCM Practitioners.
Yet, we believe all business owners can benefit from observing these medical guidelines. For the following reasons:
They raise the standards of your brand's image
They keep your advertising clear from exaggerated claims. These may cause legal complications and at the least, unhappy customers.
They encourage respectful conversations with colleagues and competitors
Do Doctors Need To Be On Social Media?
Having a social media presence is a necessity for every business.
None more so than clinics and hospitals. Why?
In-your-face advertising is not permitted by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC), so other methods are needed. That's where social media excels.
Clinics that generate a great variety of educational content on their social media build a strong brand. They benefit their existing patients and the wider community (their potential patients).
Doctors must capture public attention without compromising on facts and best medical practices. When they find that balance, it educates and empowers patients.
Another powerful form of advertising is a customer testimonial video. Yet, the rules for doctors are a little different from other industries.
What's A Customer Testimonial Video?
A video testimonial is a short video of a customer praising the company.
A patient testimony tends to be more focused on the specialist who has helped them. It is written or delivered on camera by a patient who has been through a medical experience.
It can be about any topic related to health, illness, or treatment and recovery.
A good testimony is arguably the most persuasive form of advertising. For more information read our article: 7 Tips to Making Compelling Customer Testimonial Videos.
So what's the guidance for medical practitioners wanting to share patient testimonials?
Let's pivot to the relevant organisations that regulate the healthcare profession in Singapore.
Who Regulates Doctors in Singapore?
There are several organisations dedicated to compliance within the medical industry.
They exist to maintain the high standards of the medical profession and to protect patients from being exploited.
The main organisations are:
Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) - Singapore Code of Advertising Practice
Singapore Medical Council - Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (2016 edition) and their Handbook on Medical Ethics
Ministry Of Health - Private Hospitals And Medical Clinics (Advertisement) Regulations 2019 with Explanatory Guidance
Health Sciences Authority - Advertisements and Promotions of Medical Devices
We now examine the regulations.
Medical Advertising Guidelines All Businesses Should Know
1. Your Content Must Be Factual And Verifiable
Advertising and producing medical content for the public? Keep it factual, accurate, verifiable. Don't deceive or resort to sensation.
Information in medical advertising has to meet the following standards:
(d) Not misleading.
(e) Not unduly persuasive.
(f) No extravagant claims.
(g) Not sensational.
(h) Not enticing or alluring.
(i) No financial inducements.
(j) Not laudatory.
(k) Not comparative.
(l) Not disparaging.
SMC's Handbook on Medical Ethics, P55
Posting talks, interviews or articles? Make sure it's done ethically:
Part of your service to the community as doctors may involve giving talks, interviews or writing articles to increase public awareness of health issues to help improve the health of the community...this may be a form of advertising and must be done ethically.
2. Be Careful Not To Exploit Patient Vulnerability
A lot of people are concerned about their weight and body image. Doctors must keep this in mind when producing advertisements. They must present facts about the procedure and risks.
Your advertising should contain objective and comprehensive information about the procedures and outcomes rather than play on the public’s vulnerabilities in self-esteem and perceptions of body image.
3. Avoid Buying Online Ratings
In their 2020 Advisory, the SMC state that doctors should not buy services from online review platforms.
Medical practitioners should refrain from participating in online Search Engine Optimisation platforms that make use of patient feedback and ratings, as these feedback and ratings can be considered to be patient testimonials.
In particular, medical practitioners should not be paying for such services by purchasing packages from these platforms for the purpose of obtaining patient testimonials, as payment for such packages or services could be considered to be express agreement on the part of medical practitioners to allow patient testimonials to be part of their publicity and medical advertisement activities.
Advisory: Medical Practitioners’ Participation in Online Search Engine Optimisation Platforms (25, Nov 2020)
4. No Comparing Your Services To Others
When a doctor takes the Physician's Pledge, they are promising to respect their colleagues as their professional brothers and sisters.
This means not comparing not belittling.
Doctors are not in competition with one another. Instead, they are helping each other as a team. Each person has taken the time to learn how to care for others. Each has their method yet all are united by a common purpose.
You are not allowed to disparage other doctors or their practices or make comparisons between you and your practice, and others’ practices. It is inappropriate to give the impression that you and your practice are superior in any way compared to other doctors who provide similar services.
SMC Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (2016), P56
5. Only Promote Products Backed By Science
It's okay to promote products or programmes if they are supported by scientific evidence or generally accepted by other doctors:
You may promote food, vitamins, tonics, health and nutritional supplements, health, weight loss or fitness programmes provided that whatever you say, write or broadcast in this connection is supported by scientific evidence or is generally accepted by the medical profession.
SMC Handbook on Medical Ethics (2016), P154
However, you must not give personal testimonials:
You are not allowed to give personal testimonials of you and your family’s use of such products or services.
This would be an abuse of your position as a doctor to unduly influence public perception of the validity of any of these products or services, as such claims of benefits to yourself or your family may be anecdotal reports which, even if honestly made, remain unconfirmed by reputable literature.
SMC Handbook on Medical Ethics (2016), P154
6. Keep Illustrations And Animation Realistic
Illustrations, graphics and animation can often make your point more effective and attractive than words or photos. Just be sure to keep portrayals of procedures realistic so there are no false hopes.
Illustrations, graphics and animation, while legitimately helpful in explaining things, have the potential to exaggerate, since they are fictitious. If these are used, you need to be careful not to present exaggerated claims of quality or outcomes.
7. Testimonials Must Be Instigated By Your Patient
If the testimonial originates freely from the patient themselves, it may be displayed within the clinic and on their website or social media.
Additionally, the patient themselves is allowed to post it on their own website or social media.
Patients, caregivers or members of the public may provide direct feedback (through testimonials and/or endorsements) on a HCI’s services, on its premises (e.g. on the board inside a clinic’s waiting area), website or social media accounts.
Such feedback may also be provided on the websites or social media accounts of patients, caregivers and members of the public. Licensees and healthcare professionals must not coerce or offer valuable consideration of any kind to induce patients, caregivers or members of the public to provide testimonials and/or endorsements.
Explanatory Guidance To The Private Hospitals And Medical Clinics (Advertisement) Regulations 2019, P16
For more information read Private Hospitals And Medical Clinics Act (Advertisement) Regulations (2019)
Medical Advertising Examples
You Have Us
Clinic: Dana-Farber Brigham & Women's Cancer Center, Boston, Massachusetts
Campaign: You Have Us - 30-sec web video series and website
Message: "Right now you may have cancer. But what your cancer doesn't know is - You Have Us."
Analysis: This inspiring series is powerful in its simplicity. It doesn't resort to sensational claims. It doesn't claim to cure your cancer. What they do say is they are working hard to defeat it and they are supporting you. It's visually appealing. You see the synergy of the doctors working there and their joy is tangible.
Clinic: Mayo Clinic, across USA
Campaign: Sharing Maya Clinic - website
Message: A place for patients, families and Mayo Clinic staff to share their experiences.
Analysis: This initiative is the solution for doctors in countries who are not permitted to post their own patient testimonials. By offering a dedicated portal for patients and employees to voluntary share their stories, it satisfies all parties. The advertising is not "in-your-face" and the patient or staff member can express their gratitude or experiences.
Clinic: Dana-Farber Brigham & Women's Cancer Center, Boston, Massachusetts
Campaign: Men's Health Center
Format: 6-min video outlining cause & treatment available
Message: We understand men's sexual health, there's nothing wrong with you, it's common with age. Our clinic has the services you need.
Analysis: This video went viral with 1.2 million views. Why? An expert candidly delivers a sensitive, taboo subject. It educates and empowers listeners. The only graphics used are on the opening title. It has plain headings with no animation or illustrations used in the presentation. The specialist doesn't make sensational claims. He shares the problem and what the clinic is trying to do.
The medical industry has a far more rigorous set of advertising standards than other industries. On the surface, this limits the advertising options that many other industries enjoy.
All businesses can benefit from observing these medical guidelines. They can:
Propel you to find innovative marketing approaches.
Raise the standards of your brand's image.
Keep your advertising clear from exaggerated claims. Avoiding unhappy customers or even legal complications.
Encourage respectful conversations with colleagues and competitors
Force you to find the right balance of engaging customers while keeping professional.
Educate and empower your patients and the wider community.
Appeal to natural curiosity rather than capitalise on ignorance.
Uphold the respect that the public has for the medical profession.
Patients are free to publish their testimonies within your clinic and on your websites and social media.
Please note, this author is not a healthcare practitioner. And this is not a definitive guide to medical advertising standards. For more information, consult the SMC's latest ethical guidelines and handbook.
Talk with us about creating a web video series or other content for your social media.