Ethical marketing is an essential, but complicated issue for every company. Ethics in health care marketing is especially important. Whether it’s done intentionally or unintentionally, misleading patients is an egregious mistake that may inhibit their right to make informed health care decisions for themselves. Before developing an overall marketing strategy or implementing any advertising campaigns, administrators and advertisers must be very careful to scrutinize every detail in light of its potential ethical implications.
Basic Ethical Principles
In addition to standard marketing regulations, additional requirements apply to specific industries, including health care. Professionals should always defer to the guidelines of the relevant state or national health care organization. The American Medical Association (AMA), for example, has worked with the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) to establish some basic guiding principles for health care marketers. They are:
- Do no harm
- Support trust and truth in marketing
- Disseminate and practice ethical values that encourage patient/consumer confidence
These guidelines are a substantial step forward for the traditionally structured AMA, which in years past had posited that any health care marketing was unethical. Their point of view was modified in 1982, when a Supreme Court ruling affirmed that prohibiting advertising was unlawful, as it restrained competition.
Specialty-Specific Ethical Guidelines
In addition to the guidelines of the AMA and the DMA, physicians should evaluate the ethical guidelines of the organization for any specialty the physician practices. For example, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has its own Committee on Ethics. Among their ethics guidelines are the requirements that all paid advertising must indicate that it is paid advertising, that all advertisements must be free of discriminatory statements or attitudes and that no advertising can question the competence of another physician’s practice. Additionally, ACOG’s Committee on Ethics requires physicians to consider the intent of the advertisement and the consequences it might have on the public’s perception of the medical profession.
Even if it’s executed with the best of intentions, a marketing campaign may inadvertently mislead patients. No matter which specialty the advertisement is intended to promote, it must always consider whether it is easily understood by a layperson, whether it contains enough information to avoid confusion and whether the advertisement is located in a place that won’t be misleading. For example, if a family physician lists the practice in a directory under “infertility,” this could be misleading unless that physician has advanced qualifications to treat infertility. Additionally, health care marketers should choose ad language carefully. It’s unethical to use words like “best,” “top,” or “world-famous” in reference to a physician, unless that physician has earned an award or designation whose title contains those words.
Put extra care into making sure you adhere to the ethical codes of your organization or practice. Ethics are a vital aspect of healthcare and marketing, and they call for special consideration.
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