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Could you be breaching AHPRA advertising guidelines?

We all know that advertising and marketing are important for any business — even for those in the health and medical field.

But if you’re a health practitioner who is regulated by AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency), you’ll know that you need to follow the Guidelines for advertising a regulated health service when crafting ALL of your advertising material.

This legislation has been developed to ensure consumers can make informed, accurate decisions about their health and any treatment they may need. If you breach the AHPRA advertising guidelines there may be consequences.

What is advertising?

Advertising is anything you do to draw attention to your services. It includes all forms of verbal, printed and electronic communication such as:

  • your website
  • social media posts
  • paid advertising
  • directory listings including appointment booking sites
  • signage, business cards and letterhead of your practice
  • sms messaging
  • other public communication such as TV, radio or newspaper and magazine coverage
  • paid advertising, including Google ads.

Read AHPRA’s Guidelines for advertising a regulated health service for a complete definition of advertising.

The 10 most common ways health practitioners breach AHPRA advertising guidelines

Unfortunately, many Australian health practitioners are guilty of breaching AHPRA advertising guidelines.

Usually, these breaches are unintentional and health practitioners are often unaware their advertising isn’t compliant. This is either because the guidelines are hard to find and understand, or because practitioners are too busy to cross-check their content against these guidelines.

However, if you’re regulated by AHPRA, you are responsible for all your advertising. That means it’s up to you to understand all legislation and to ensure all your advertising complies with these rules. Each time you renew your registration with AHPRA, you will need to sign a declaration stating that your advertising is AHPRA-compliant.

If you breach AHPRA advertising guidelines, you may be liable for a significant fine, restrictions to your registration, or even jail (in extreme circumstances).

These are the 10 most common mistakes that I see health practitioners make when advertising their services and how you can avoid them.

1.      Publishing patient testimonials

Many health practitioners fail to comply with advertising legislation by publishing patient testimonies that mention:

  • the reason the patient sought treatment
  • the diagnosis and treatment the patient received
  • the outcome of the diagnosis or treatment
  • the skills of the practitioner, either directly or via comparison with another practitioner.

AHPRA prohibits the use of any testimonial that refers to any clinical aspect of care.

You should also avoid editing testimonials to ‘fit the guidelines’ as this has the potential to be misleading and deceptive.

While you won’t be in breach of AHPRA advertising guidelines if patients give you a Google review, you will be if you respond to the review, republish it, or use it to advertise your practice.

TIP: Read my blog on How to get AHPRA-compliant testimonials to check if you have breached the guidelines and to learn how to get testimonials you can use.

Many health practitioners breach advertising legislation by publishing patient testimonials that mention clinical aspects of care. These kinds of testimonials are not allowed. Click To Tweet

2.      Misusing titles

Some health titles are protected titles. This means you can only use them if you genuinely have qualifications in that field. Using titles you aren’t entitled to use carries huge fines. At the date of publication, it’s $60,000 per offence for an individual practitioner, and $120,000 per offence for a corporate body.

You also need to be careful with the use of ‘doctor’. While it’s not a protected term, it’s traditionally, associated with registered medical practitioners. If ‘Dr’ does not refer to a registered medical practitioner, (e.g. Osteopath, PhD) this must be clear.

Read AHPRA’s information on Titles in health advertising to learn more.

Some health titles are protected so you must be careful when using them, or you could breach AHPRA advertising guidelines Click To Tweet

3.      Calling yourself a specialist

If there are no recognised specialist categories in your profession, you can’t refer to yourself as a ‘specialist’. You also can’t refer to yourself as someone who has a ‘specialty’ or ‘specialises in’ a particular area — even if you have extra training or experience in that area.

If you do hold specialist registration in a recognised specialty, you must only use terms like ‘specialist’, ‘specialising’, ‘specialty’ or ‘specialised’ in the context of the specialty you are registered in. Calling yourself a specialist or inferring you have specialist qualifications when you don’t is a clear breach of the AHPRA advertising guidelines.

Tip: Use this list of approved Specialties & Specialty Fields to ensure you get it right.

Under AHPRA advertising guidelines health practitioners can only call themselves a 'specialist' if you they specialist registration in a recognised specialty. Click To Tweet

4.      Providing unrealistic expectations of treatment

You probably have a deep desire to help your patients. But you must be very careful not to create an unreasonable expectation of treatment benefits.

Unreasonable expectations include overstating the potential benefits of treatment, minimising risks and recovery time, or stating that treatment outcomes are guaranteed. You also need to be careful when using before and after photos, or using anecdotal evidence when discussing treatment benefits.

It’s very easy to create unreasonable expectations of treatment benefits with the words you use. Avoid words such as:

  • cure
  • treat (you can’t treat all conditions, but you can manage them or treat symptoms)
  • safe
  • proven
  • can (use may instead)
  • pain-free
  • harmless
  • guaranteed.
Creating unrealistic expectations of treatment is prohibited under AHPRA advertising guidelines. Click To Tweet

5.      Making unsupported health claims

If you make any health claims they must be backed up by ‘acceptable evidence’. This should include data from formal research or systematic studies in the form of peer-reviewed publications, or approved clinical guidelines for care. If you make health claims, make sure you include your evidence and full references.

Be very careful about claims that treatment can help with conditions that are not within your professional scope of training. You also need to be careful when using the word ‘treat’. Not all conditions can be treated. But you can manage or treat symptoms related to the condition.

TIP: This is a tricky area but my blog What does AHPRA mean by acceptable evidence? will give you more information. The AHPRA website also has more detailed information.

You must support all advertised health claims with 'acceptable evidence' if you are a health practitioner regulated by AHPRA. Click To Tweet

6.      Using old research to back up health claims

While we’re on the subject of research, use the most recent studies. AHPRA prefers studies no more than five (5) years old. Using old research will increase the likelihood that you’ll breach the guidelines by using unacceptable evidence to back up health claims.

7.      Claiming you can ‘treat’ lists of conditions

Avoid blanket statements and listing health conditions you treat. This increases the likelihood that there will be no suitable supporting evidence. For example:

“Our treatment can help with:

  • back pain
  • neck pain
  • asthma
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • behavioural issues.”

Remember, you need to provide acceptable evidence to back up ALL of the above statements. Even if there is acceptable evidence, lists make it very hard to reference these claims.

8.      Failing to acknowledge risks and side effects

As you know, all treatments come with risks and potential side effects. Disclosing these is an important part of your advertising. You don’t have to list all the potential risks and side effects on your website, but you do need to include a statement along the lines that all treatments and procedures come with risks. Always recommend that the consumer discuss these with their practitioner before deciding upon treatment.

Health advertising must acknowledge that there are potential risks and side effects to treatment. Click To Tweet

9.      Discrediting other health professionals

Claiming or inferring that other medical professionals are wrong, incompetent or didn’t treat their patients well breaches AHPRA advertising guidelines. You are also not allowed to say you were able to help a patient when another health practitioner couldn’t. It’s best to avoid referring to other health professionals at all in your advertising.

10.  Encouraging regular check-ups

While it may be appropriate for some patients to have ongoing appointments, advertising that encourages patients to make regular appointments where there is no clear clinical benefit isn’t allowed. You are also prohibited from inferring that a patient’s health will decline if they don’t have regular appointments. When answering any questions about how many appointments a patient may need, simply say that this will be decided in consultation with the health provider.

Claiming that patients need regular treatments goes against AHPRA advertising guidelines. Click To Tweet

How to make your advertising compliant

To ensure your advertising is compliant you must be familiar with the advertising guidelines. AHPRA has a section on their website dedicated to advertising. On it, you can find the guidelines, information about ‘acceptable evidence’, how to advertise using social media and common examples of incorrect advertising.

Visit the AHPRA Advertising Hub and their section on social media advertising to learn more.

If you are a plastic or cosmetic surgeon, you’re probably aware of new, tighter legislation that will be enforced from 1 July, 2023. You can find further details about this at AHPRA’s cosmetic surgery hub or read a case study about how I helped a plastic surgeon meet these guidelines.

Where can you go for help?

AHPRA’s website has lots of information about complying with its advertising guidelines. If in doubt, you can contact your National Board for advertising advice. Some boards have position statements which are important to be aware of.

You can also ask a copywriter who understands AHPRA advertising guidelines to help you with your content. However, be aware that as the advertiser, you are responsible for your advertising, even if someone else wrote the copy.

When choosing a health writer to help you, make sure they can demonstrate a good understanding of these guidelines and don’t just list AHPRA compliance as one of their services.

As a professional health and medical copywriter, I have plenty of experience helping health practitioners comply with their advertising obligations. I can help in three ways.

  1. FREE Credible Compliant Copy Checklist

A FREE downloadable guide to meeting the AHPRA advertising guidelines.

  1. AHPRA Compliancy Check

I can audit your web content, including testimonials to make sure they comply with the guidelines.

  1. AHPRA-compliant websites for health practitioners

I write you an AHPRA-compliant, patient-friendly, Google-loving website that builds trust with your patients, and promotes your practice.

It’s important to take the time to check your advertising doesn’t breach AHPRA advertising guidelines. If it does, you may be liable for fines, imprisonment or restrictions on your ability to practice.

If you’d like to chat further about how I can help you meet AHPRA’s advertising guidelines, please contact me.

Cheers
Nerissa

 

Disclaimer:

Every effort has been made to ensure information contained in this post is in line with relevant legislation and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) advertising guidelines.

The Melbourne Health Writer is not a legal professional and therefore will not be held responsible for any non-compliant advertising that may result in an audit, fine or other sanction, as a result of following the information in this post.

If you are unsure if your advertising complies with the National Law, you should seek advice from your professional association, insurer and/or independent legal adviser. We recommend you find further information about AHPRA compliance, including specific examples at https://www.ahpra.gov.au/Resources/Advertising-hub.aspx.

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