Marketing Ethics in Healthcare: What Every Organization Should Know

By Kathy Roy Gaughran
Senior Marketing Strategist

Female doctor receiving a note from a female patientMarketing ethics have been a topic of debate in healthcare for years. Can healthcare organizations, hospitals, and practices really feel good about spending advertising dollars to attract patients? Shouldn’t patients naturally drift towards quality organizations?

In today’s changing world of healthcare, some form of marketing is almost a requirement. Gone are the days when patients chose the closest hospital or practice. And gone are the days when physician referrals guaranteed appointments.

Still, we occasionally hear concerns about marketing ethics in healthcare, especially as organizations are just starting out. Let’s take a look at where that thinking comes from—and how ethical healthcare marketing can actually make a difference in a patient’s life.

Related: 10 Biggest Myths of Healthcare Marketing: Don’t Sabotage Your Organization!

A Brief History of Advertising and Marketing Ethics in Healthcare

So where does the notion of marketing healthcare as unethical originate? It all started way back in 1847. The American Medical Association unveiled its first code of marketing ethics, which states:

“It is derogatory to the dignity of the profession, to resort to public advertisements or private cards or handbills, inviting the attention of individuals affected with particular diseases; publicly offering advice and medicine to the poor gratis, or promising radical cures or to publish cases and operations in the daily prints or suffer such publications to be made; to invite laymen to be present at operations; to boast of cures and remedies; to adduce certificates of skill and success; or to perform any other similar acts. These are the ordinary practices of empirics, and are highly reprehensible in a regular physician.” 

Of course, at the time, snake oil salesmen were touting their “miracle cures,” misleading the public with homemade potions and zero basis in medicine. The AMA aimed to disassociate true physicians from these uneducated quacks as much as possible.

No outright ban on marketing was made, though, until 1947. At this time, the AMA faced issues with physicians unethically promoting certain pharmaceutical and everyday products—including cigarettes. The AMA lifted some restrictions in 1957 to allow for “softer” tactics such as networking and physician referral building.

Why Ethical Standards in Healthcare Shifted

Healthcare marketing faced major obstacles as the business of healthcare shifted in the 1970s. No longer were patients primarily physician referred; they began to choose healthcare based on preferences. Public relations departments were common amongst large provider organizations and hospitals in the 1970s, as were informal promotions such as sponsored seminars and community events. Still, few organizations found ways to utilize marketing to gain recognition in their communities.

That is until 1980, when the Federal Trade Commission ruled that the AMA’s ban effectively restricted trade in the medical field. Today, the marketing of pharmaceuticals is still tightly controlled, while physician boards continue to provide ethical standards for marketing hospitals and practices. However, it is much easier for healthcare organizations to establish themselves through the wide variety of traditional and digital marketing and advertising platforms available today.

Medicine Is a Profession—Healthcare Is a Business

Facebook. Google. Bing. Yahoo. Television. Radio. With so many options available for healthcare marketing today—and so many of your colleagues (and competitors) already taking advantage—fear of marketing ethics stands in the way of helping patients get the care they need.

Online search dominates the market when it comes to finding healthcare needs. For the most part, prospective patients will simply move on if they can’t find your practice online. And unless your organization actively builds brand awareness (through online ads, mailers, etc.), you can rule out referrals altogether.

Patients will likely move on to another mode of treatment or another organization. And they may miss out on treatment altogether if healthcare options aren’t presented at the right time. Assuming you offer great care, don’t you owe it to your patients to help them stay educated and confident that your organization is the right choice?

Medicine is a profession. Healthcare is a business.

You’ve invested time and money into your organization. You deserve to be seen within the community you serve. And prospective patients deserve to know how to find the high standard of care you offer. Whether or not you are physician referred, patients will likely search for your organization first to feel confident you are the right choice for their healthcare needs. You owe it to yourself and your patients to provide accurate information and marketing that guides them to the best choice.

How to Ensure You’re Marketing Ethically

Still worried about ethically marketing your organization? Remember, you’re helping your community find the healthcare they need when they need it. That said, there are some specific guidelines recommended and/or enforced among most physician groups worldwide.

  • Follow any and all marketing and advertising guidelines set forth by your medical boards. For example, some boards do not allow testimonials to be displayed on a website.
  • Remain HIPAA compliant and cover all your legal bases when using actual patient information.
  • Avoid superlatives like “best,” “most effective,” or anything you cannot prove.
  • Do not use any wording that promises results you cannot consistently deliver.
  • Don’t disparage other providers or claim that other fields of medicine or other doctors are inferior. Prove your value through your own expertise and skill.

These are just a few of the common guidelines we see and follow as our own marketing ethics. For more help ethically marketing your healthcare organization, contact a marketing strategist at Healthcare Success at 800-656-0907.

Kathy Roy Gaughran
Senior Marketing Strategist at Healthcare Success
In her career, Kathy has helped over 4,000 clients all over North America achieve their growth goals. As an award-winning strategic marketing planner, Kathy has been involved in both the high-level strategies required for long-term sustainability, plus the tactical execution used to accomplish the day-to-day successes. Kathy’s clients include practices with annual revenues well over $10 million and with annual marketing budgets up to $900,000. In addition, Kathy is an accomplished speaker, appearing at countless national, local and state healthcare associations. Kathy is a member of the American Marketing Association and The Direct Marketing Association.



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