Physician Marketing Made Ethical AND Effective

By Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer

Male surgeon sitting down with an expression of exhaustionA Brief History…

Physician marketing is unique because most of practice owners have historically refused to market their services.

In fact, prior to the landmark 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, professionals in private practice (including but not limited to healthcare professionals) were legally prohibited from advertising or marketing their services or fees.

Over a period of years after the Supreme Court ruled that such prohibitions were a violation of free speech protections covered by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, professionals in private practice gained slow but gradual progress on the acceptance of their rights to market their services to the public.

But even though the legal precedent had been established, most healthcare professionals did not choose to engage in marketing activities. Most felt that marketing was unprofessional – even unethical – and would damage their reputation. They feared (as many still do today) that marketing their practice would make them appear either needy or greedy – probably both – to their colleagues and to their patients.

Additionally, while state medical and dental boards could not longer legally prohibit marketing by private practice owners, they could (and did) structure their guidelines to make allowable marketing very difficult, restrictive and complicated.

As a result, most practice owners refused to consider marketing their practice, leaving a largely uncontested opportunity for the few who held a different point of view. Not so long ago, in fact, marketing in private practice healthcare was such an open playing field that almost anything worked if a practice owner was simply willing to try it.

Even many of those healthcare professionals who did choose to market their practices made their decision reluctantly. To many of these providers, marketing was a distasteful choice you sometimes felt you had to make – but certainly not because you wanted to.

Concerns About Professional Reputation

Ask any physician, surgeon, dentist, physical therapist, audiologist or other healthcare professional, and they will tell you that their reputation is their most precious asset.

Given this understandable concern, it makes perfect sense that practice owners who fear their reputation could be put at risk by marketing would resist the enterprise, even in spite of its known benefits.

What those practice owners fail to grasp is that you can use marketing to protect, enhance or even create the reputation you want to have!

Remember that marketing is the process of influencing people through effective communications to see you, your product or your services in the light that you want to be viewed. After all, your reputation is not based on what you think of yourself but rather it is based on what others think of you – if they think of you at all. And effective marketing allows you to positively influence what and how others think of you – as well as reminding them when, how and why to think of you.

Think of your professional image and reputation as a blank canvas to those who don’t know you yet. This applies to your colleagues as well as patients.


If you are a skilled, well-trained and practiced artist who knows how to work magic with your brushes, your palette of colors and your canvas, you can create a credible, impressive and highly professional image and reputation.


Unfortunately, as with any powerful tool, if you don’t know what you are doing and how to use your powerful tool properly and effectively, you can end up with a disastrous outcome.

Naturally, no one wants this kind of reputation but many fear it as an inevitable, unavoidable byproduct of marketing.

But what is important to understand is that a bad marketing-created image and/or reputation is the result of bad marketing. So it stands to reason that you can also create or enhance a good reputation with good marketing.

An Expanded Definition of Marketing and Ethics

What many practice owners did not understand (and some still don’t) is that the public is hungry for information – and entitled to it. They will seek it out even if it is withheld from them.

Most practice owners did not understand that in the absence of more information and options, consumers would turn to and favor the few that were willing to provide them with information, even if the information was not always accurate or even truthful.

There are many good and valid definitions of marketing. But when you boil them all down, you can essentially distill the essence of marketing as informing and influencing through effective communications the value you have to offer to people who can benefit from that value.

When you appreciate healthcare marketing from this expanded view, a new perspective about the ethics of marketing may emerge (as it has for many other healthcare professionals).

Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer at Healthcare Success
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is Chief Executive Officer of Healthcare Success, one of the nation's leading healthcare and digital marketing agencies. Over the past 20 years, Stewart has marketed and consulted for over 1,000 healthcare clients, ranging from practices and hospitals to multi-billion dollar corporations. A frequent speaker, Stewart has shared his expertise at over 200 venues nationwide. As an author and expert resource, Stewart has also written for many leading industry publications, including the 21,000 subscriber Healthcare Success Insight blog. Stewart also co-authored, "Cash-Pay Healthcare: Start, Grow & Perfect Your Cash-Pay Healthcare Business." Stewart began his career with leading advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, where he marketed Fortune 500 clients such as Wells Fargo and Bally's Total Fitness.



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