Advertising your practice: your common questions answered
Tuesday, 7 November 2023
Advertising your practice and understanding what you can and can’t do can be a challenging area for practice owners and practice managers.
To help you advertise your practice’s services responsibly and comply with the advertising requirements, we asked our medico-legal experts to answer some of the most common questions we receive.
1. What laws does our advertising need to comply with?
Practices need to comply with advertising requirements under the:
- Health Practitioner Regulations National Law Act 2010 (National Law)
The advertising laws are explained further in Ahpra’s Guidelines for advertising a regulated health service (advertising guidelines).
- Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (Consumer Law)
- Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code 2021 (Advertising Code)
If your practice is advertising medications or products, advertising should comply with Therapeutic Goods Administration’s requirements. View the Advertising Code online for more information.
If your practice advertises cosmetic surgery procedures, advertising must also comply with the Guidelines for registered medical practitioners who advertise cosmetic surgery, effective from 1 July 2023.
Ahpra provides a suite of resources on its Advertising hub containing guidance and resources to help advertisers understand their obligations.
2. What do the advertising laws cover?
Advertising includes all verbal, printed and electronic public communication, from websites and social media through to recall notices and letterhead. Whatever the medium, the question is whether it promotes a health service provider and seeks to attract someone to that provider. If so, it will be considered advertising.
3. What should we avoid when advertising?
Ahpra’s advertising guidelines include examples and decision trees to help clarify what is and is not permitted. Advertisements could breach the National Law if, for example, they:
- Create an unreasonable expectation of outcomes or recovery time.
- Overstate the potential benefit, or
- Minimise the complexity or risk.
It’s also best to avoid the following:
- Claims that your health service is superior.
- Claims about the effectiveness of a particular treatment or overstating the potential benefit, for example, it can ‘cure’ a condition.
- Suggesting treatments are ‘safe’, ‘effective’, ‘painless’ or ‘infallible’.
- Patient stories or images that may create an unreasonable expectation of benefit. Any claims about effectiveness need to be backed by evidence, and the guidelines explain what sort of evidence would be acceptable.
4. Can we use patient testimonials to explain treatments?
Ahpra considers patient perceptions of their care to be highly subjective and may also create unrealistic expectations.
Under the National Law, both solicited and unsolicited testimonials which contain recommendations or positive statements about clinical aspects of a regulated health service are prohibited and should be removed. However, practices can use patient testimonials about non-clinical issues.
5. Can we ask patients to leave reviews on third party sites?
Ahpra has confirmed that doctors and practices can ask patients to leave ratings on third party review sites such as Google.
However, if you do ask patients to leave reviews, advertising must not be false or misleading, so avoid any actions that might be seen as influencing reviews. You should take the same approach to all patients, not just those you think will write something positive, and never offer any kind of inducement in return for reviews.
Reviews should never be edited (for example, to remove a reference to clinical aspects) so if the testimonial breaches the advertising prohibition, the whole review should be removed.
6. Can we advertise offers, gifts or discounts to patients?
Any offer, gift, discount or the like needs to clearly state the terms and conditions. However, consider carefully whether it might be seen to minimise the seriousness and risks of procedures, or encourage unnecessary use of services, and exercise caution if including these in your advertising. Offers, gifts or discounts must not be used at all to encourage patients to have cosmetic surgery.
7. Are we responsible for advertising created by an agency or third party?
Yes. You are responsible for any advertising you commission from an agency or third party or approve to be published.
8. Can we use the title ‘specialist’ or ‘surgeon’ in any advertising?
Practices need to be careful about how practitioners are advertised to the public. Only those qualified and registered in one of the recognised specialties can use a specialist title, in advertising or at all and a maximum $60,000 fine and/or three years’ imprisonment for their misuse applies. For example, the title ‘specialist general practitioner’ can only be used by a doctor who has specialist registration in general practice.
The only medical practitioners who can call themselves ‘surgeon’ and reference the title in advertising are those holding specialist registration in surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology, or ophthalmology.
If someone without specialist registration wants to advertise their particular area of practice, Ahpra advises that using terms like ‘substantial experience in’ or ‘working primarily in’ are less likely to be misleading than using words like ‘specialising in’.
9. What are the penalties for breaching the advertising laws?
Ahpra’s advertising compliance and enforcement strategy involves a risk-based approach and encourages voluntary compliance with the advertising laws.
Some high-risk advertising breaches may attract prosecution or disciplinary action. Recent amendments to the National Law increased the maximum penalties for advertising offences, from $5,000 to $60,000 for each breach for individuals, and from $10,000 to $120,000 per breach for a body corporate.
In Western Australia the maximum penalty for advertising offences remains $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for bodies corporate, per breach.
If you are unsure of your advertising obligations, visit our website or call Avant’s medico-legal advisers on 1800 128 268, available during business hours, and 24/7 in emergencies.
Watch Avant’s medico-legal webinar: ‘Prescribing, advertising and AI’.
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.