Is advertising in doctors' waiting rooms allowed? The short answer is yes.

As a healthcare provider, you potentially have great influence over your patients. They look to you for decisions that are important to their health and well-being, and that responsibility extends to the practice as a whole. Generally speaking, we observe that people fall into one of two camps in relation to advertising within a practice. Either they are very cautious and only share government-issued information, or they value drawing awareness to other health and wellness offerings within the practice. For the latter, it is for the betterment of their patients' optimal health and also to optimise a practice's profitability.

As you know, the Australian Government issues marketing materials such as brochures and posters when they wish to drive awareness about community health risks specific to age, gender, seasons, geographic location and at-risk segments of the population. Similarly, advertising in the public areas of your practice can provide patients with information about other opportunities that can contribute to their health and well-being.

Why might you consider advertising within your practice walls?

As anyone in General Practice knows, the time you have with your patients is often tight. You can spend all the allocated time assessing or providing advice to resolve their pressing issues, leaving little or no time to highlight what they might be wise to also consider, given their demographics.

If your doctors have particular specialisations, promoting education sessions relating to their specialisations, such as breast cancer awareness, mental health or diabetes, for example, may be a good initiative to promote. While these are information sessions that have public benefit, they can also help both doctors and specialists increase awareness about their areas of interest or speciality and can assist in boosting patient and community referrals as well.

Drawing focus to a new GP whose books are not full and detailing their areas of interest can assist in freeing up another GP, instead of losing patients that can't or don't want to wait for weeks or months to see their regular GP. If your practice includes allied health services, you may also wish to draw awareness to their complementary offerings.

You may also wish to invite people to opt into marketing communication. You might have a poster with a QR code on it or specific website address where they can elect to submit their details in exchange for reminders or information specific to a health issue, or age group or general health-related marketing communications.

Your GP's will know what they wish they had time to highlight with their patients, so using your waiting room walls to promote services or bring their attention to other health and medical issues or benefits that they may not otherwise be aware of, could be a method to share those other opportunities, without positioning it as advice. An often used opening phrase is 'Ask your doctor if.'.

If advertising information sessions, other services or treatments is something you might want to consider in your practice, there is one overarching requirement. That is, any advertising, whether it be in your waiting room, hallways, bathrooms, in the windows or any other area of your practice, must be compliant.

Compliant advertising

In Australia, as a regulated health practitioner you will be aware of the five key frameworks that dictate how you are to operate. These are:

  1. The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law ("the National Law")
  2. The Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code
  3. AHPRA - Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (in partnership with the 15 National Boards of Australia)
  4. The Trade Practices Act (TPA)
  5. Fair Trading Legislation (specific to your State or Territory)

We generally refer to these frameworks collectively as 'The Code'. As you will be aware, and as you may have read in more detail in an earlier article about social media marketing guidelines, the goal of The Code's advertising guidelines is to protect consumers from anything that is false or misleading. If consumers are misled about a medical product they may make unrealistic assumptions, have false expectations or end up with compromised health.

It is also not just the law that is a concern when advertising in doctors surgeries. As medical professionals, you have a duty to make sure you are remaining ethical, and acting in the very best interests of your patients, at all times. A proportion of your patients may be vulnerable and may not have the skills or resources to make well-informed decisions about their care. That is where advertising in environments like doctors waiting rooms, if not compliant, has the capacity to be harmful.

The biggest takeaways from the Code are:

  • Do not engage in any conduct that is likely to deceive
  • Do not make false or misleading statements regarding your services
  • Do not engage in any misleading pricing or advertising

There is no room for error when advertising as your practice and the owners/shareholders could face serious penalties. While these can include financial penalties such as fines, you can also run the risk of having your licence suspended.

"These guidelines are not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone requiring advice about advertising a regulated health service should seek appropriate independent advice from their legal adviser or indemnity insurer."

Source: AHPRA - Codes-Guidelines-Policies

Setting expectations

Advertising regulations are very strict when it comes to product and service expectations. Cosmetic procedures such as Botox or fillers are often services where expectations are heightened. The same is true for dental work, and for anything that is marketed as 'pain-free', 'safe', or promises shorter recovery periods than offered elsewhere.

As a medical provider, there must never be any content shared that in any way could create unreasonable expectations of beneficial treatment. Overstating the benefit of a treatment is against the rules, as is providing information that implies a guaranteed outcome. Other wording to avoid includes phrases that indicate a sense of urgency such as 'Don't delay,' 'Time is running out', 'Act now,' or similar wording. Also, using photographs in any type of marketing or advertising material should be approached with caution.

While these guidelines may seem obvious to many of you reading this, given that we see this type of advertising appearing regularly in print media and online, it does add to a perception that promoting the results they have achieved through these treatments, is permitted. The rules and the consequences for regulated health practitioners are very serious.

The opportunity for medical practices

We know there will be some practice owners who will hold the view that promoting, marketing or advertising is too risky for their liking. However, opportunities like these mentioned can have considerable benefits for your practice that should not be overlooked. Many medical practices keep well within the guidelines and legislation and enjoy the benefits that advertising and marketing can bring.

We know that the prospect of wading through 'The Code' could also put advertising initiatives into the 'too hard basket'. To minimise the risks and make it easier for practices to ensure that any advertising and marketing will be compliant, we have developed an easy-to-use and comprehensive Advertising Framework that we customise for the specific needs of each practice. It provides clear guidelines to follow that can be shared with anyone involved in the creation of marketing or promotional materials for your practice.

Where you cannot be entirely confident that your team or anyone involved in your advertising or marketing will know where to draw the line, or you have questions or concerns about advertising regulations, it is essential to seek out expert advice. There can be significant consequences for getting it wrong. Advertising safely in the medical field is never something you want to make a guess at, when you can work with trusted professionals who can reduce your legal and professional risk.