For those who haven’t followed the lively debate about the revised advertising guidelines for Australian health professionals, this post from last week explains it all. In summary, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency now says in its new guidelines that practitioners can be fined if patients post online testimonials praising the clinical care they received.
Last Friday, it seemed as if AHPRA had backed down on the harsh regulation. But is this really the case?
What does AHPRA say?
First of all, here’s a quote from the current guidelines:
a review (…) that states ‘Practitioner was quick to diagnose my illness and gave excellent treatment’, is a testimonial which references clinical care and is considered in breach of the National Law.
The guidelines also state that health practitioners must take steps to remove unsolicited testimonials appearing on any (social media) website not under their control. However, last Friday the medical board put out a media statement on the AHPRA website saying this:
The advertising guidelines apply to testimonials in the context of advertising (…) there is a clear difference between advertising – which requires an intent to promote the health services – and unsolicited online comment over which practitioners do not usually have control (…). The Board recognises that practitioners are unable to control what is written about them in a public forum.
The full statement can be found here.
3 unanswered questions
Indeed, this sounds a lot better than the official advertising guidelines – the medical press have used the words ‘backflip‘ and ‘backdown‘. However, the guidelines have not been updated, which leaves the following three questions unanswered:
1. If a patient posts a comment on my Facebook page stating that I gave excellent treatment, this is still considered in breach of the National Law according to AHPRA’s guidelines and I may be up for a fine if I don’t delete this friendly post. Will I be able to defend myself by referring to the media statement posted on the AHPRA website on 7 March 2014? If AHPRA is serious, the guidelines should be changed in accordance to their statement.
2. Health professionals need to know why our feedback about exactly this issue has not been taken on board in an earlier stage. The first draft guidelines appeared in 2012 and health practitioners were not impressed. The rules were already clear: we knew that testimonials in advertising are a no-go (and I don’t mean unsolicited Facebook comments from patients) – and of course this applies to websites, social media, the classroom, the elevator and anywhere else.
In AHPRA’s udated draft guidelines (2013) the issue of patient feedback vs testimonials had not been addressed, which again led to a storm of online comments as well as another lot of official submissions. See also this post (April 2013). As we know, the final version was published last month and positive patient feedback is not allowed, but then again on Friday the board seemed to think that patient comments are not advertising.
3. As the advertising guidelines are common to all national boards (e.g. dental, nursing & midwifery, psychology etc) we need to know if and how the statement by the medical board will be applied to the other 13 disciplines.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with the clarification by medical board chair, Dr Joanna Flynn, and I agree it is a step in the right direction. But it still seems unnecessary government interference, and, after three revisions, the guidelines leave important questions unanswered.