Lately I’ve been intrigued with the use and ethics of digital marketing by medical ‘specialists’ for marketing themselves online or their valuable services to attract more clients. Like other professionals who devoted years in university and incurred an uncomfortable amount of debt to pursue their studies, I would have thought that medical professionals would have a keen interest marketing themselves or their practice online.
To my dismay, some medical professionals in both the public and private sector reject digital marketing as one of the ways in which to market themselves and some even frown upon other medical professionals pursuing this. Marketing in general for medical specialists is regulated by many associations with their own set of policies but I find the reasons why these policies exist limiting.
Some medical professionals view that a medical ‘specialist’ should be recommended only by a GP, not be promoted through their website using Google Search or a digital marketing campaign as this is regarded as unethical. The reason they see this as unethical is because patients could erroneously base their decision on choosing their own medical specialist by conducting a Google search being influenced by fancy websites, great photos or digital media which would be an unfair advantage over other medical specialists and would possibly come at the cost of dismissing important medical criteria such as a patient’s medical profile and history. Or worse, a medical specialist chosen through a prominent Google search might be chosen over another medical specialist with more experience, research and success that does not pursue digital marketing.
I believe the GP referral system is an efficient system for the patient. My view is that the GP referral system doesn’t take away the fact that the specialist of your choice may still need or be required to communicate with your GP to learn about your history, allergies or access your medical records. At the end of the day, if a medical professional has studied, passed and succeeded with their exams and therefore has the necessary credentials which includes internships and patient experience, is in gainful employment then what is the harm is promoting a medical specialist using their own website and digital marketing campaigns?
Is it because a more senior medical specialist might be dismissed in the choices online because the advertisement or google ranking superseded a more qualified specialist? If so, how is this any different from other professional industries including lawyers, accountants who are the absolute best in their industry but not ‘ethically’ ranked on Google?
I am one of those patients that will run a Google search with keywords including “best” when it comes to choosing who to work with including medical specialists, accountants or lawyers. Some examples would be “best ivf specialist” or “best invisalign sydney dentist” or “best blood specialist or haematologist” I have learned to take my health into my own hands and investigate most things before walking into my GPs office.
When reviewing a medical professional website, I look for many things, number of years of experience, research contribution, awards, credentials, etc. Depending on the medical specialist, images are also important, such as the before and afters. However, for some specialists such as chiropractor, the profile, background, experience, awards etc will hold higher value in the decision making process than images. If my GP has a different specialist in mind for me to consider, I am in the position of being informed and discussing the credentials and motivations of their referral. Most times my GP agrees with me but I understand that this isn’t the case for most individuals. I believe the GP referral system is an efficient system for some patients and the Australian government also sees it this way because it isn’t mandatory step before choosing a medical specialist.
Another concern is that digital marketing dollars should never be used to promote a doctor or a medical specialist. Rather when it comes to health and seeking professional health advice, this should be based solely on again the merits of the doctor’s credentials and experience, continuing education, research, awards, etc. If we consider this argument, then why is it ethical for medical professionals to invest substantial marketing dollars on prime real estate usually located at a major intersection or popular high foot traffic streets for the purpose of growing their practice? This is a major form of marketing based on convenience rather than medical credentials or expertise. How is this approach more ethical when a medical specialist is backed by more funds for marketing in prime real estate positions than someone who is more experienced and qualified in their area of expertise.
Google is making it more and more difficult for any website to rank well and now seeks credible signals online to assist its Google ranking. It seeks credible and authoritative information including latest research, where research is published, it reviews engagement metrics, assesses high value mentions on other authoritative websites, especially government sites etc. These are measures far more ethical and objective than word of mouth. It isn’t easy for a medical professional to rank well on Google’s first page unless you provide a unique service and not based in a competitive metro area.
Like all professional industries, if a professional promotes inaccurate information about themselves then this will have consequences. In my opinion, all of these roles are incredibly important to our future and our health and well-being. While some medical professionals are backed by medicare in Australia and have legal obligations to fulfil, that doesn’t mean these medical professionals or businesses shouldn’t be entitled to digital marketing campaign and have their business growth reliant on GP referrals. Even so, there are ethical issues around this as well as you can’t control offline behaviour.
What are the ethics of a new medical specialist starting their own practice and introducing themselves to referring doctors in their local area with a bottle of wine or wanting to get some public relations exposure and agreeing to a radio or TV interview where millions of viewers can tap into their brand? What is the process here for a TV or Radio editor or producer to choose a medical specialist? Most times it is an open process, they approach someone who is a) willing to be interviewed and b) they contact many medical specialists and c) they run a Google search to determine who are the leading specialists in their field. Is this any more ethical than promoting your website using digital marketing? Are medical specialists any less deserving for doing well in their chosen career path than a professional lawyer or accountant?
Digital marketing is substantive and entrenched in our daily lives. There is no hiding from it, not even with medical professionals. Marketing a medical specialist website doesn’t take away from the ethical and legal responsibilities a medical professional still needs to maintain. Every business needs to conform to ethical standards both online and offline and there are consequences when this is not achieved. If we are trying to protect the patient from making poor decisions in choosing a medical specialist and any adverse consequences from doing so, then perhaps these specialists should not have graduated or obtained their licence to practice to begin with. But to offer medical specialists a license and then restrict them from regular marketing channels that most professionals can succeed with is greatly unfair, particularly understanding the level of time, dedication and sacrifice a medical specialist has made to attain their professional licence.
Digital marketing allows professional people to have an opportunity to be seen, heard, to educate the masses and allow the individual to take part in making an informed decision about their own health options. This holds more value than eliminating digital marketing as an option and providing a greater opportunity for both the patient and the medical specialist to communicate and make decisions together and allow many medical professionals to grow their practices more quickly.