But it isn’t just health care providers who need to be cautious. While the AHPRA guidelines are designed to protect the public and to help dentists get a better grasp of what they can and can’t advertise, the law also applies to other third parties who are also involved in health service advertising. This includes media or advertising agencies, copywriters, non-registered practitioners and corporations directly linked to the health-care sector.
So, what do we mean by advertising exactly?
- All types of printed media including magazines, brochures, and pamphlets
- All means of electronic media including websites, social media advertising
- All types of communication using radio, television, billboards and/or phone
First of all – Here’s what you can say…
The good news is that not only are titles permitted in dental advertising, they’re also actively encouraged. However, it’s vital that any specific title quoted is by no way misleading or misused. As an example, there are some circumstances where the term ‘doctor’ could be confused with a medical practitioner. In other words, when the advertising isn’t clear that you’re talking about a dentist. In this case, and to avoid any confusion, you may want to put something like “Dr. John Smith (Dentist)”. From the outset, this makes it clear that Dr. Smith is indeed a dental professional and it extinguishes any layers of doubt with the reader.
Qualifications and memberships
Provided that you don’t state that you’re more skilled and/or more experienced than you are, then listing your qualifications and memberships is permitted and encouraged under the AHPRA advertising regulations. From a dental perspective, this is good because by listing qualifications it helps potential patients make a better-informed choice about who they want to use. However, as a general rule of thumb, memberships and qualifications should only be listed if:
- They’re credible, current, and verifiable
- You have the relevant skills and experience to fit those qualifications
- They are easy for a consumer to understand; and
- They’re classed as your primary qualifications and skill sets
Listing speciality qualifications and endorsements is a great way of telling potential patients that you have skills outside of the normal roles of a general dentist. For example, if you state that you’re a specialist orthodontist, then you need to have completed the correct, dedicated, and additional training. This is in addition to any training already undertaken to become a general dentist.
However, at the same time, AHPRA guidelines state that any misuse of the word ‘specialist’ or any wording that could be misconstrued as being a specialist when in fact that’s not the case, can land you in hot water and facing a hefty fine. So, if in doubt try using other words like ‘has substantial experience in‘ or ‘has a special interest in’. Again, clarity is key!
Use scientific information to back claims
The guidelines laid down by the Australian Heath Practitioner Regulation Agency details that a suggested use of scientific information is permitted but only when used to back up claims. It should come from a reputable source, detail the academic publication that featured it, and any terminology should be easily understood by a non-dental professional. Finally, it should be accurate, unbiased, and non-misleading.
AHPRA guidelines state that pricing is okay to mention in your advertising on the proviso that it doesn’t mislead anyone. As an example, you shouldn’t suggest that a patient can undergo dental implant treatment for as little as $400 and then fail to make it crystal clear about any further out of pocket costs that might be incurred. This includes crown and abutment costs as well as any other necessary pre-implant activities like bone grafting or sinus lifting. In addition, making statements such as the ‘lowest cost around’ when this isn’t backed up by hard factual evidence, will also land you in hot water with AHPRA – So, consider choosing your words carefully.
Okay, so that’s all the things you can say, now what about the things that you need to avoid at all costs? Let’s take a closer look…
Any information which is misleading, misconstrued, or just plain inaccurate isn’t permitted in any form. This includes information which has been falsified or modified to suit an agenda or information that has been purposefully omitted for the sole reason of bettering the image of your business.
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, false advertising can have long-lasting effects on the patient especially adverts that either purposefully or unintentionally:
- Provide misleading information
- Contain false endorsements, titles, and the use of the word specialist when not the case
- Advertising unfounded or unproven health benefits or health issues of a particular treatment or service
- Making comparisons between various health providers that are either factually incorrect or simply misleading
Discounts, gifts, and more
While discounts and offers can be mentioned, AHPRA advertising guidelines state that it’s illegal to entice patients with the offer of discounts and gifts without fully disclosing any terms or conditions that come with it. For instance, a ‘free check-up and clean’ ceases to be free when the prices of other services are raised to accommodate it. Conversely, it is allowed if all details surrounding the offer are fully disclosed.
To avoid any pitfalls, it might be best to steer away from language which may be interpreted the wrong way. By being as open and honest as possible when dealing with discounts or gifts and clearly stating the limitations and/or conditions, you’re far less likely to cause any confusion.
Creating unreasonable expectations simply to take advantage of obtaining a new patient in their time of need, is not only morally wrong, but it’s criminally wrong too. According to AHPRA, health practitioners will be in violation of the law if they advertise services or treatments that exaggerate a particular benefit or promise results that simply aren’t possible. A prime example is any advert which states a treatment is magical, miraculous, or cures all problems, or alternatively is ‘guaranteed’ to make you feel a certain way. Any claims such as these are unreasonable, unjustified, and above all illegal!
Believe it or not, it isn’t acceptable for a medical practitioner to use testimonials for advertising gain, nor is it permitted for health professionals to repost, retweet, or resend previous positive comments from one individual to another on social media for advertising gain. Furthermore, while comments about friendly staff, extended opening, and easy access are permitted on a dental website, testimonials directly pertaining to the clinical care that a patient has received is not permitted.
AHPRA state that the reason for this is that one person’s view is not representative of clinical outcomes for others and therefore doesn’t encompass the whole picture.
There are however some good independent online platforms where patients can leave testimonials such as Rate MD’s or White Coat.com. These are where people can share their medical experiences with others. So, with this in mind, dentists should persuade anyone considering leaving feedback, to place it there and not on your practice website.
When advertising your dental practice, a great deal of caution needs to be undertaken. Unlike in other industries, a misleading ad can cause physical, psychological, and financial difficulties. So, openness, honesty, and clarity are the three key factors that need to be taken into account. Any advertising claims made to the order that your treatment benefits patients, should be backed up and substantiated.
For best results, practices should be advertising based on their own merits and should relay with absolute clarity the services and treatments on offer. Social media posts should continually be reviewed as AHPRA hold you responsible for all content on your pages and feeds, even if you didn’t post it. As such, there’s a legal red zone surrounding the advertising of health-related services on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter where caution is most definitely advised.
Consider any advertising from a patient’s perspective. Ask yourself:
- Is any information contained within, misleading?
- Does it tell them everything they need to know in order to make a balanced and informed decision?
- Could the content create unrealistic expectations of how treatment might help them?
Finally, perhaps the best tip of all is this… If you’re in any doubt, leave it out! Do this and you won’t go far wrong.