Many laws also categorically restrict or prohibit certain types of advertisements. For example, advertisements containing endorsements or testimonials by patients, colleagues, family members, friends, actors, celebrities, and others are frequently restricted—or prohibited altogether. Illinois’ Medical Practice Act, for example, deems it unlawful for a physician to use testimonials to entice the public. Under Texas’ laws, however, an advertisement is false, deceptive or misleading if it “contains a testimonial that includes false, deceptive, or misleading statements, or fails to include disclaimers or warnings as to the credentials of the person making the testimonial.”
Explore this issue:December 2010
A recent advertisement for a health care procedure that featured a world-recognized athlete, along with a statement about his satisfaction with the procedure, was found to be in violation of a state’s physician advertising law and was prohibited from further dissemination in that state. The physician whose practice was linked to the advertisement was found to have violated the state’s statute and was subjected to disciplinary action.
The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Code of Medical Ethics warns that “testimonials of patients as to the physician’s skill or the quality of the physician’s professional services tend to be deceptive when they do not reflect the results that patients with conditions comparable to the testimoniant’s condition generally receive,” and further states that “objective claims regarding experience, competence, and the quality of physicians and the services they provide may be made only if they are factually supportable. Similarly, generalized statements of satisfaction with a physician’s services may be made if they are representative of the experiences of that physician’s patients.”
Typically, state laws provide state attorney generals the power to sue physicians who have engaged in false or deceptive advertising and may impose monetary fines or enjoin the physician from further disseminating the advertisement at issue. State law may also permit patients to sue the physician for monetary damages, if the patient can prove that he or she was injured by the physician’s false or deceptive advertisement.
Even if an advertisement does not appear to be in violation of a state’s laws, it is important to be aware of advertisements that cross state lines. Although Dr. M’s practice is located in New York, he was interested in attracting patients from neighboring cities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so he intended to publish his advertisements in newspapers in select cities in all three states. Thus, I reviewed Dr. M’s advertisements not only in light of New York laws regarding physician advertising, but also considering those laws in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
While advertising can prove lucrative, increasing a medical practice’s patient base, it is imperative to incorporate a lawyer well versed in federal and state physician advertising laws into your marketing team. When a physician contracts with a marketing consultant or advertising group, I often negotiate a representation in the service agreement stating that the advertisement complies with applicable federal and state laws. If the advertising agency makes a mistake, the physician may sue for damages. Unfortunately, that defense would not be viable in a hearing before the state board. You, the physician, are always ultimately responsible for the advertisement and for protecting your license.