What motivates truth in healthcare advertising?

Healthcare, rightfully so, is one of the most highly regulated of all industries. Veracity and accountability must not be compromised. But should regulation be the motivator of behaving ethically? When did our own integrity cease to provide the guidance necessary to maintain our own credibility and the credibility of the brands we represent?

To be clear, not all operate by the same moral code. This is why some degree of regulation is essential. But to what degree should outliers be able to influence the norm? Regulatory mandates and guidelines increasingly populate the healthcare branding landscape. All well intentioned, but not all equally clear in their interpretation or implementation. Some even stifling common sense with an overabundance of caution.

This takes on a warped sense of irony during our presidential election cycle. Regardless of which, if any, political party you support, you cannot escape politicians manipulating the truth to suit their causes or explain away difficult to confront issues. Often the truth is so badly denigrated, it becomes unrecognizable or lost in a whirlwind of deliberate confusion. The same political parties responsible for such frequent distortion and polarization are those charged with ensuring that honesty in the healthcare industry is secure.

The motivation for truth in healthcare marketing should not be based on regulation. And if personal principles alone are not enough to act with integrity, there is another overwhelmingly powerful motivator – it makes good business sense. The very most important characteristic of any brand, be it corporate, product, or service, is its integrity. This forms the foundation of trust between a brand and its internal and external constituents. Without it, loyalty can never be established and competition, rightfully, can command share.

Facts are stubborn things. Data and outcomes drive decisions. Companies have shareholders and investors who expect the highest returns. But we owe it our financial backers, the practitioners we partner with, their patients, our co-workers – and moreover – ourselves to preserve brand integrity. To not let the truth be misshapen. To honor the regulations that are in place. This is how, over time, greater equity can be established for the industry, trust earned, and common sense prevail.

In April of last year, a bipartisan effort introduced “The Truth in Healthcare Marketing Act of 2015.” Representatives Larry Bucshon (R-IN) and David Scott (D-GA) introduced a bill that “would make it unlawful for any healthcare professional to make deceptive statements or engage in behavior that misleads patients in advertisements and marketing efforts.” The bill “also directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pay particular attention to false and misleading advertising among all healthcare professionals.”

Representative Bucshon stated, “As a physician, I understand that healthcare providers are vitally important to our nation’s healthcare system. That being said, we need to take every step possible to ensure patients are protected. It is imperative that healthcare consumers have adequate information, including the education and training level of the healthcare professionals treating them, so that they are able to make wise healthcare choices.”

Representative Scott adds, “Patients today are confused about the healthcare system, especially when it comes to differentiating among the qualifications of the many types of healthcare providers. Our bill would make it unlawful for any healthcare professional to make deceptive statements or engage in behavior that misleads patients in advertisements and marketing efforts about their level of training.”

The bill in its own right is not controversial. Practitioners featured in advertising and marketing should not misrepresent their credentials, nor should they use said credentials to convey validation of misleading information. No doubt it is the profusely clear and uncontroversial concept that was able to garner bipartisan support.

The issue is not whether you agree or disagree with the proposed bill which is still, over a year later, is being considered by Congress. It is a matter of personal integrity and a willingness to take ownership of the truth. The challenge is to earn trust fairly, with both our words and actions. There is no reason to wait for this or any regulation to pass to enforce what as brand stewards we already know. We must continue to practice at the highest end of our own personal standards, and have no tolerance for actions that would diminish brand integrity. By doing this we will ultimately be contributing to the bottom line, enriching the equity of our brands, minimizing the need for overregulation, and most of all, preserving our own character.

by Jonathan D. Katz