**Update: There have been some recent developments to this issue. The information below is still relevant, however I suggest reading this post too.
The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) recently released revised guidelines, codes of conduct and a new social media policy, that come into effect on 17 March 2014. These policy updates effect all practitioners of regulated health professions Australia wide.
These revision have sparked some very concerned discussion in the healthcare community due to the changes made to the Advertising guidelines that clarify the regulations surrounding online testimonials.
Section 133 of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law 2009 has prohibited the use of testimonials in advertising since it was introduced. However this update significantly expands on the obligations that a health practitioner has to monitor and remove online testimonials.
In regards to online testimonials the advertising guidelines now state:
“A practitioner must take reasonable steps to have any testimonials associated with their health service or business removed when they become aware of them, even if they appear on a website that is not directly associated and/or under the direct control or administration of that health practitioner and/or their business or service. This includes unsolicited testimonials.
‘Reasonable steps’ include taking action in the practitioner’s power, such as directly removing, or requesting removal, of the testimonials.“
Additionally the updated guidelines now state the following in relation to practitioners social media profiles and pages:
“The National Law prohibits advertising in any way that uses testimonials or purported testimonials. Testimonials, or comments that may amount to testimonials, made on social media sites by patients or other people may contravene the National Law. Social media includes work related and personal pages on social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
A person is responsible for content on their social networking pages even if they were not responsible for the initial publication of the information or testimonial. This is because a person responsible for a social networking account accepts responsibility for any comment published on it, once alerted to the comment. Practitioners with social networking accounts should carefully review content regularly to make sure that all material complies with their obligations under the National Law.”
Testimonial or Review?
AHPRA acknowledges existence third party online review sites stating that:
“There are a number of independent websites that invite public feedback/reviews about a patient’s experience of a regulated health practitioner, business and/or service. These websites are designed to help consumers make more informed decisions and increase transparency of interactions.”
However it has a strict definition as to what constitutes a review:
“A review is not considered to be a testimonial or purported testimonial, in breach of section 133 (1)(c) of the National Law when it only comments on non-clinical issues, regardless of whether it is positive, negative or neutral.
Reviews must not contain statements about the quality of clinical care received from the regulated health practitioner, business and/or service.”
The following is given as an example of a review:
‘Appointment ran very late and magazines were old’
This is given as a testimonial example:
‘Practitioner was quick to diagnose my illness and gave excellent treatment’
What does all this mean for Practitioners?
In short the regulatory update makes it the responsibility of the individual practitioner to seek to have testimonials that comment on clinical issues removed when they become aware of them. No matter if they are on a business/personal social media profile or even on a website that the practitioner is not associated with, such as online review sites.
Breaches of the guidelines can result in fines of up to $5000.
My Two Cents Worth
As noted previously there has been much discussion of these changes elsewhere. Including this crikey blog post that includes an open letter to AHPRA from Victorian surgeon Jill Tomlinson.
I can see this policy creating some major headaches for Practitioners and Practice Managers, it would be a shame if it discouraged the use of social media as a tool for communication and health education.
Here are my tips for navigating the regulatory updates:
Ensure you clearly understand your regulatory obligations regarding testimonials.
Ensure anyone involved in the marketing of your practice has an up to date understanding of section 133 of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law.
Develop practice policies and procedures for dealing with online testimonials if you become aware of them.
Ensure the staff in your practice who will be seeking removal of any testimonials are familiarised with the review removal procedures for major major social and review sites.
When removing testimonials from your own social media properties be sure to reach out to the person who posted the comment and explain why you are removing it.
Revised policy documents for all regulated health services are available here:
The specific document quoted (in blue italics) in this post is the revised Advertising Guidelines, this policy is applicable to all regulated health services and can be downloaded here.