In 2010, the Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD) updated its nearly 20-year-old healthcare marketing ethical guidelines to include many revamped standards, including social media and blogger advertising. As chair of the committee that wrote these ethical guidelines (and as a member of the SHSMD board), I want to remind people that ethical marketing communications resources do exist. Too often do we read documents like the Principles and Practices for Marketing Communications in Hospitals and Health Systems once, then file it away. Instead, it should be something referred to frequently and consistently.

One of the guidelines listed states that pseudo-testimonials by actors should be identified as such. While we often use actors as patients in non-speaking roles, the ethical issue arises when actors take on speaking roles. In those situations where an actor tells a patient story of being “cured” or treated, the communications piece should identify that person as an actor versus misrepresenting the actor as a real patient.

What is also included in the report are guidelines for instituting a formal review process before marketing communications appears, the use of endorsements and testimonials, and the use of physicians in marketing communications, any of which would have prevented the catastrophes that occurred at two health systems over the past couple months.

The first, from the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System, surrounded an advertisement for Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci robotic surgery system featuring a dozen University of Illinois physicians and staff. Though the hospital was not compensated for the ad, some of the physicians had been previously compensated by Intuitive posing an evident conflict of interest.

The second is a three-year-old cancer ad from the University of Mississippi Health Care Children’s Cancer Center that recently popped up on social media. The ad features a split-screen photo of a young patient named Noah at age four (when he was battling leukemia) and age seven (when he was cancer free). However, what the ad doesn’t tell you is that both photos were actually taken of 7-year-old healthy Noah, the left shot using a bald cap, makeup and Photoshop to make him look sick.

Both of these stories—though separate ethical issues altogether—are perfect examples of why healthcare organizations need to be extremely cautious of what and how they are communicating their brand message and capabilities in the marketplace.

Fortunately, standards for the industry do exist. Start by asking yourself these questions: Do you have a marketing communications check list? Do you have a review process for marketing communications? Are you asking the right questions before running advertisements? If not, any of these can be solved by using SHSMD’s guidelines.

The above stories are cautionary tales for those who do not strictly follow a set of hospital marketing ethical guidelines. I encourage you to use what has already been established by SHSMD, and be vigilant in ensuring that your communications do not violate any ethical standards.

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