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Physician Advertising and Publicity

Guidelines Regarding Physician Advertising and Publicity

The WSMA has established the following guidelines regarding physician advertising and publicity: There are no restrictions on advertising by physicians except those that can be specifically justified to protect the public from deceptive practices. A physician may publicize himself as a physician through any commercial publicity or other form of public communication (including any newspaper, magazine, telephone directory, radio, television, or other advertising) provided that the communication shall not be misleading because of the omission of necessary material information, shall not contain any false or misleading statement, or shall not otherwise operate to deceive.

The form of communication should be designed to communicate the information contained therein to the public in a direct, dignified, and readily comprehensible manner. Aggressive, high-pressure advertising and publicity may create unjustified medical expectations. Any advertisement or publicity, regardless of format or content, should be true and not misleading.

The communication may include: a) the educational background of the physician; b) the basis on which fees are determined (including charges for specific services); c) available credit or other methods of payment; and d) other information about the physician which a reasonable person might regard as relevant in determining whether to seek the physician's services. Any advertising or other public representation where the physician claims to be board certified shall name the certifying board.

Patient testimonials, like other methods of advertising, are permitted to the extent they are not false or misleading. However, a physician using a testimonial must be able to substantiate that the experience related in the testimonial is representative of what the patients generally experience.

Statements relating to the quality of medical services are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to verify or measure by objective standards. Claims regarding experience, competence, and the quality of the physician's services may be made if they can be factually supported and if they do not imply that he has an exclusive and unique skill or remedy. A statement that a physician has cured or successfully treated a large number of cases involving a particular serious ailment may imply a certainty of result and create unjustified and misleading expectations in prospective patients.

Consistent with federal regulatory standards which apply to commercial advertising, a physician who is considering the placement of an advertisement or publicity release, whether in print, radio, or television, should determine in advance that his communication or message is explicitly and implicitly truthful and not misleading. These standards require the advertiser to have a reasonable basis for claims before they are used in advertising. The reasonable basis must be established by those facts known to the advertiser, and those which a reasonable, prudent advertiser should have discovered. (Res 12, B-87; Res 20, A-89; Res 42, A-90; JC Rpt A, A-99) (Reaffirmed A-17)

The WSMA has adopted the following guidelines regarding physician competition: Some competitive practices accepted in ordinary commercial and industrial enterprise, where profit-making is the primary objective, are inappropriate among physicians. Commercial enterprises, for example, are free to solicit business by paying commissions. They have no duty to lower prices to the poor. Commercial enterprises are generally free to engage in advertising "puffery", to be boldly self-laudatory in making claims of superiority, and to emphasize favorable features without disclosing unfavorable information.

Physicians, by contrast, have an ethical duty to subordinate financial reward to social responsibility. A physician should not engage in practices for pecuniary gain that interfere with his medical judgment and skill or cause a deterioration of the quality of medical care. Ability to pay should be considered in reducing fees, and excessive fees are unethical.

Physicians should not pay or receive commissions or rebates or give kickbacks for the referral of patients to other health care providers. Likewise, they should not make extravagant claims or proclaim extraordinary skills. Such practices, however common they may be in the commercial world, are unethical in the practice of medicine because they are injurious to the public.

Freedom of choice of physician and free competition among physicians are prerequisites of optimal medical care. The Principles of Medical Ethics are intended to curtail abusive practices that impinge on these freedoms and exploit patients and the public. (JC Rpt A, A-94; JC Rpt A, A-99) (Reaffirmed A-17)

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Abbreviations for House of Delegates report origination:

EC – Executive Committee; BT – Board of Trustees; CPA – Council on Professional Affairs; JC – Judicial Council; CHS – Community and Health Services

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