If you've ever searched online for a new dentist or other health professional, you're certain to find websites with positive testimonials. Then there are the impressive "before and after" photos.
But our recently published research shows not all health professionals are playing by the rules when they market themselves to the public.
Our study of dentists shows almost three-quarters were illegally using testimonials on social media to market their practice and almost one in five were using pictures or text likely to create unrealistic expectations of the treatment.
So what are health professionals allowed to claim about the service they provide? And what advice should you rely on?
What type of health professional are you looking for?
How health professionals are allowed to market themselves depends mainly on what type of service they provide. The key is whether the practitioner is providing what's known as a regulated health service.
These include: doctors, dentists, pharmacists, psychologists, nurses and midwives, chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, optometrists, podiatrists, practitioners of Chinese medicine, radiographers and sonographers, and people who provide specialist health services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
So, if you're looking for one of these, the following advertising is illegal:
- false, misleading or deceptive advertising or advertising that's likely to be misleading or deceptive
- advertising that offers a gift, discount or other inducements, unless the advertisement also states the terms and conditions of the offer
- using testimonials or reported testimonials
- advertising that creates an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment,
- advertising that directly or indirectly encourages the indiscriminate or unnecessary use of regulated health services.
These rules apply to all forms of advertising across different media, including social media.
But there are a whole range of health professionals who aren't counted as providing a regulated health service. These include optical dispensers, speech and language pathologists, massage therapists and acupuncturists.
So, if you read great testimonials about these, while persuasive, they're unlikely to be illegal under health-care law. However, they would still be bound by Australian Consumer Law, which prevents misleading or deceptive advertising.
How about if I leave an online review?
While the law prohibits providers of a regulated health service from providing testimonials, there's nothing stopping you from leaving a review on Google or on your own social media page.
But if you leave a review on a doctor or dentist's practice page or social media account, it's the health professional who will be breaching the rules; the regulator expects health professionals to manage the content of their pages.
You would think that most testimonial sections on social media would be disabled, however, this isn't what our research showed.
For bad reviews, you could potentially be sued for defamation if your post harms the health professional's reputation. This is an entirely separate section of law, with many caveats, so please take care. A recent case involved a surgeon who successfully sued a patient for A$480,000 after he made defamatory claims online.
So, what's the big deal?
Testimonials and reviews are very common in other aspects of our daily lives. Just think about the last time you downloaded an app, used eBay or booked a holiday online. But what makes health-care so special?
Testimonials and reviews can potentially mislead. For instance, one study that looked at YouTube testimonials about dental implants found many testimonials overplayed the positives (better looking and improved function) and downplayed the negatives of treatment (pain relief needed, a temporary solution).
Testimonials and reviews might not even be true. Google requires no proof you have visited a health professional before you leave a non-verified review. And a quick search on Google itself reveals many businesses offering to sell positive Google reviews.
Then there are the potentially serious health consequences of choosing the wrong health professional (or the wrong therapy) after reading testimonials and reviews. For instance, there's nothing to prevent medical graduates with little or no postgraduate training using the title "cosmetic surgeon".
Misleading claims or titles might also affect your ability to consent to treatment; if you don't have the right information, how can you make an informed decision?
Where does this leave me?
There is no one-stop resource for patients to access health advertising that is completely free from bias. So, take claims relating to health professionals with a pinch of salt, including testimonials.
While some people think advertising restrictions stifle public discussion, they're in place to protect you.
Explore further: Don't believe all you read, health reviews can be misleading too