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Advertising guidelines when promoting your practice

All businesses, including doctors and medical practices, have obligations to ensure their advertising is not misleading. There are additional obligations when advertising healthcare services and more again for cosmetic surgery and procedures. Understanding your responsibilities can help you effectively promote your services while fulfilling your legal and ethical obligations.

Wednesday, 22 May 2024

Quick guide

  • Advertising of regulated healthcare services must comply with the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law, Australian Consumer Law and the requirements of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
  • Know what constitutes advertising and regularly review yours to ensure it is compliant. You are responsible even if another person or company prepares it for you.
  • Breaching advertising laws is an offence and penalties apply.
  • There are extra requirements if advertising cosmetic surgery.


Advertising helps your patients make informed decisions and understand how to access healthcare when they need it.

For a doctor working in a regulated health service (i.e. a hospital, public or private practice or health service), advertising is anything that promotes you or your practice or services. Obvious advertising includes your website, signage, brochures and print, radio or television advertisements. But did you know the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) also considers social media posts, business cards, email signatures, your letterhead and public facing professional notices (such a recall notices) as advertising?

Advertising can also include appearances on television or radio to provide information or answer questions from the public. Read the full definition of advertising in Ahpra’s advertising guidelines.

Responsibility lies with the doctor and the practice

No matter who develops the content or images in your advertising, you are responsible for it. Ahpra encourages practitioners to check their advertising prior to publication to ensure it is compliant. A case in point is websites. They are often developed by people outside the medical profession who may not be aware of relevant laws but you are responsible for ensuring your website is compliant with the advertising requirements.

Advertising breaches could be costly

If an advertising breach is identified, Ahpra will advise you or your practice and give you an opportunity to correct the content. At this point it is important to review all advertising to ensure compliance. Breaches may be prosecuted, particularly persistent or repeated breaches, with penalties of up to $60,000 for individuals and $120,000 for companies for each offence. There may also be disciplinary consequences arising from advertising.

Acceptable advertising for healthcare services

Healthcare services advertising is regulated to protect the public from false or misleading claims and to help people make informed decisions about their healthcare. It is an offence to:

  • use language or images that may mislead patients or cause an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment
  • use advertising to encourage patients to use a health service that is not clinically indicated
  • use testimonials about a clinical aspect of care, including reposting positive comments from social media or other third party platforms
  • advertise any gifts or offers without clearly stating the relevant terms and conditions 

Ahpra’s guidelines and other resources explain the advertising prohibitions in detail and provide examples.

Use of factual information and acceptable evidence

Be careful about what you claim as a statement of fact, particularly in terms of the benefits of a treatment. Any claims must be supported by acceptable evidence and Ahpra provides a framework to assess whether evidence is suitable to be used in advertising.

You can use your own factual information – your name, contact details, qualifications, speciality training and areas of experience – in advertising material.

Claims about your skills

Be careful about claiming expertise. You cannot imply you are the best or one of the best in your speciality or for a particular procedure, and you should avoid all comparisons between yourself and other healthcare providers.

Use of protected speciality titles

Medical practitioners must not use ‘protected’ titles they are not qualified to use. For example, you should not use the term ‘specialist’ or any similar words unless you have completed specialist training recognised by Ahpra and the Medical Board of Australia. See the Medical Board’s full list of protected specialty titles.

In addition to the advertising penalties listed above, there are separate offences for breaches of the title protection provisions, with the same financial penalties per offence. Individuals may also face up to three years imprisonment.  

You cannot use testimonials

It is an offence to use testimonials about clinical aspects of your care in your advertising. This includes testimonials about symptoms, why treatment was sought, interventions provided, the outcome, or your skills or experience.

Reviews, testimonials or feedback that don’t include any reference to clinical aspects of care are allowed, for example, comments about the ‘convenient location’ or ‘friendly staff’. However, only unedited, non-clinical testimonials are acceptable, so editing a testimonial to remove clinical content is not advised.

You can use an award symbol or rating from a third-party review site in your own advertising, as long as you do not publish, or link to, the reviews or testimonials on which the award or rating is based.

Social media is not immune from advertising regulations

Increasingly medical practitioners are using social media platforms to increase awareness of their profile and services. This should be done cautiously. You should not repost any compliments from patients on their social media platforms (as these are testimonials) and don’t encourage patients to post positive comments about you.

While you are not required to remove positive comments from platforms outside your control, you are responsible for ensuring the content on platforms and websites you do control does not breach the National Law. It may be best to turn off comments on your social media accounts to avoid patients commenting with a testimonial.

Photographs and images

Take care with images used in your advertising. ‘Before and after’ photographs may be misleading and could be seen to create unreasonable expectations. Images must be of a real patient who has undergone the advertised procedure in your practice. You need to get consent from your patient to use an image and the consent must be specific for that use, in writing and free from any inducement.

Stock images are acceptable in your advertising provided they are not used to infer a false claim or mislead.

Advertising of price information

This can be a difficult area, particularly for doctors performing procedures. Any information that is provided must be clear and factually correct. Providing any price information about the cost of consultations and the relevant Medicare rebates should be straightforward but also indicate any variables that may apply given the needs of individual patients.

Rewards and inducements

Inducements, including rewards such as gift vouchers or discounts for referrals, are problematic because they may encourage indiscriminate or unnecessary use of health services, which is prohibited. Discounts are only permitted if the full cost of the treatment is advertised and the associated terms and conditions of the discount are clearly stated.

Additional requirements for cosmetic surgery

There are significant additional requirements for medical practitioners advertising cosmetic surgery. All practitioners advertising cosmetic surgery must comply with the Medical Board of Australia’s Guidelines for registered medical practitioners who advertise cosmetic surgery.

Some of the additional obligations are that medical practitioners advertising cosmetic surgery must:

  • include their registration number and whether they hold general registration or specialist registration, including recognised specialty and field of specialty practice
  • not use language to describe themselves that may be misleading or create unrealistic expectations (for example ‘magic hands’, ‘sculptor’ or ‘world renowned’)
  • not use any offers, gifts or inducements that would encourage someone to have cosmetic surgery (whether or not the terms and conditions are stated)
  • include a prominent warning on all before and after images that the outcomes shown are only relevant for that patient and are not indicative of outcomes for other patients
  • ensure that full information about risks and potential risks can be easily found within their advertising
  • not use language to describe procedures which may minimise or trivialise cosmetic surgery (e.g. colloquial terms such as ‘mummy makeover’ or language like ‘problem area’)
  • not use images that are sexualised, black-and-white or have been edited or enhanced including through the use of filters or mood lighting
  • not ‘bundle’ procedures.

These are just a few of the additional requirements. Make sure you understand all the requirements as Ahpra proactively audits cosmetic surgery advertising.

Compliance with other legislation and guidelines

As well as complying with the National Law, and the Medical Board and Ahpra guidelines, there are other legislative requirements you should consider.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has specific requirements for advertising that mentions a pharmaceutical product. TGA regulations prohibit advertising of prescription-only drugs and some pharmacist-only medicines. This includes pictorial representations and photographs. It also has guidance for businesses involved with medicinal cannabis.

Healthcare advertising also needs to meet the requirements of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the national advertising regulator, with regards to consumer protection and rights.

We recommend you review your advertising regularly and keep detailed records. If you are unsure whether the guidelines apply in your circumstances, you can contact Avant for advice.

More information

For medico-legal advice, please contact us on nca@avant.org.au or call 1800 128 268, 24/7 in emergencies.

Disclaimers

This publication is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal or medical advice. You should seek legal or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practise proper clinical decision making with regard to the individual circumstances. Persons implementing any recommendations contained in this publication must exercise their own independent skill or judgement or seek appropriate professional advice relevant to their own particular practice. Compliance with any recommendations will not in any way guarantee discharge of the duty of care owed to patients and others coming into contact with the health professional or practice. Avant is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. Information is only current at the date initially published.

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