With online medical marketing comes an array of regulations and limitations that must be followed in order to avoid conflict with the law. Legislation such as the The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) outline what your content is and is not allowed to have. There are a vast number of federal laws, but it is also important to know the laws specific to your state. Being knowledgeable about the legislation is crucial as there can be serious ramifications for you and your practice if you do not abide by them.
Online Advertising Laws on the Federal and State Levels
When drafting content for your practice, it is first important to understand the rules of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The Federal Trade Commission Act states that “advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive, advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims, and advertisements must not be unfair.” The Bureau of Consumer Protection Business Center is a valuable source that is of great use and one that is helpful to become very familiar with. The American Medical Association (AMA) Code of Ethics also describes the rules you must abide by in medical marketing content. Using testimonials that do not meet up to the reality of the physician’s abilities or skills is one such violation of these rules among others.
In addition to overarching federal laws, you should do research on the laws specific to your state in order to avoid legal repercussions. Many states prohibit the use of testimonials containing false information or lack of background information on the person giving the testimonial. Also, states often differ in how strict their regulations are for physicians engaging in medical marketing. Etna Interactive is a great source to use to find the regulations for your specific state.
State legislations tend to be very strict about being truthful in terms of efforts that practices make to persuade new patients to the practice: you should not use any information that can be interpreted as misleading.
Possibly the most obvious of these rules, being truthful is a necessity not only to avoid trouble with the law but also to share honest information with your patients. This also relates back to the patient relationships you want to develop: if you post deceptive content, your patients will view you as dishonest and you will damage these valuable connections.
State legislations tend to be very strict about being truthful in terms of efforts that practices make to persuade new patients to the practice: you should not use any information that can be interpreted as misleading. Outlining your credentials (i.e. educational background) is an acceptable way to objectively show why you are a qualified physician that new patients should trust. However, information that is more subjective, such as patient reviews, should not be quoted in your content. This should be left on your social media platforms for potential future patients to read through themselves rather than integrating it directly into your content in order to avoid legal issues.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996
One section of HIPAA deals with the requirement of patient anonymity. On blogs, forums, and the like, you should never use a patient’s name or describe a situation in such detail that it might reveal the identity of the patient you are referring to. You are encouraged to discuss conditions, treatments, and research on the web but avoid using examples of situations with specific patients you have encountered as it might technically be considered a release of patient information that is required by law to remain confidential. Additionally, if you decide to post pictures of or with your patients, make sure that both your and their personal information is not visible or discussed in the post. To learn more about HIPAA, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services site for extensive information on the topic.
Review Your Content
Depending on the type of social media channel you might use, you must modify your content due to how much space you have for a post. For example, a post on Facebook might be slightly longer than a tweet on Twitter, and it is crucial that you are very careful about what you insert or delete when modifying this content as to not make it misleading. Being clear and direct about what you are trying to say is essential, so using language that will not be accidentally misleading – as described in the previous rule – would be ideal. Avoid words like “world-class,” “best,” and “expert” to qualify your skills or facility as these can be considered deceptive or misleading.
Finally, you might consider having your content reviewed by counsel. However, if there are legal implications with your content even after this review, the agency that reviewed the content will not be in trouble: you will be. There are very specific rules and laws surrounding the medical field, so be sure you are having your content reviewed by an agency or a group that you know is proficient with the law and specifically one that is knowledgeable about medical law.
If your content violates legislation, there can be serious consequences for you or your practice. Patients have the right to sue if they find that your content is misleading or you can be sued or fined by the FTC. Your medical license can even be suspended depending on the severity of the issue. The bottom line is that unethical or illegal marketing tactics can ultimately cause serious problems for your practice, and being careful about what you post is key.