It is better to avoid making claims about your healthcare product with a thoughtful marketing plan that includes tight controls and review processes.
As more healthcare incomes are in the hands of patient consumers, many marketers are engaging patients with new, creative, and sometimes aggressive, campaigns. While there are many benefits to speaking directly to patients, it comes with added risk. Seemingly innocuous taglines like “remarkable care,” “world-class emergency room care,” “a team of qualified doctors,” an “elite team,” or even “natural births,” have led to significant litigation and, in some cases, multimillion-dollar verdicts. It is no longer uncommon for plaintiffs to raise a breach of contract, unfair or deceptive consumer practices, or fraud in addition to their traditional medical malpractice claims.
Providers are exploring new ways to interact with patients. Eschewing traditional marketing, providers are increasingly turning to digital marketing and social media, email and texting campaigns, and testimonials. Pressure for clicks and sales can lead to aspirational slogans suggesting better care, e.g., a practice touting “amazing” or “extraordinary” care in a Facebook ad. Some providers contract with patients to provide certain levels of care (e.g., direct primary care providers), while others may be inadvertently creating contracts through their marketing. New technology offers more information on leads and better targeting but presents more pitfalls.
Traditionally, only certain providers (e.g., elective care) aggressively marketed to patients. With high deductible plans and patient choice on the rise and the rules governing advertising by medical professionals relaxing, many providers are experimenting with consumer-style marketing, without the experience, controls, and discipline necessary to manage the exposure.
While healthcare marketing has expanded, many states have implemented caps limiting medical malpractice damages to help control rising costs. In some states, a med mal claim is capped at $250,000. Plaintiffs contend—and some courts agree—that marketing claims fall outside of damages caps, making them attractive. They also tend to be easier to litigate than med mal claims, with fewer hurdles, a longer period in which to bring them, and the ability to recover statutory, enhanced or punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. Plaintiffs may use these claims to cast wider nets, e.g., alleging hospitals to be responsible for independent contractors based on the marketing.
For example, in Florida, a hospital was hit with a $178 million verdict from a botched bariatric surgery because, in part, the hospital marketed itself as a “Bariatric Center of Excellence” with an “experienced team.” In Kentucky, an emergency room’s slogan that “You don’t just deserve emergency care. You deserve remarkable care,” resulted in deceptive marketing claims. A similar case was brought based on the advertising of “excellent care by qualified physicians.” In 2016, an Alabama jury awarded $16 million against a birth clinic that failed to meet its marketing of “a mother’s choice,” “individual birthing plans,” and “freedom of movement.”
These claims can have a significant impact on a provider’s brand and reputation, cause consternation amongst employees, inculpate business partners, and invalidate or limit insurance coverage. Even if the provider prevails, it is subject to unwanted attention, significant cost, and discovery beyond the typical med mal claim. Additionally, marketing issues may result in medical board complaints, complaints about enforcing authorities, bad press or disparaging tweets, and negative online or business reviews. In short, it is better to avoid the claims with a thoughtful marketing plan that includes tight controls and review processes.
Some non-exhaustive guidelines to consider:
- Avoid superlatives and absolutes. Instead, use facts to convey why you are “the best” without saying so. But don’t turn aspirational statements into slogans.
- Subjective, general, or opinionated statements are less likely to be actionable than objective or specific statements. Avoid language that is unclear, subject to multiple interpretations, or undefined. Consider the average person’s interpretation—not a healthcare professional’s.
- Context matters. Consider the audience, how the message is being delivered, what else is in the piece, where the marketing piece is placed, etc.
- Avoid guarantees, implying a higher standard of care, and other words that suggest a special meaning (e.g., “partner,” “proven,” “promise,” “duty,” etc.).
- If testimonials are permitted in your state, don’t use them to say things that you cannot say directly or that go beyond the typical patient experience. Identify any native marketing or paid articles as advertising. Bloggers, tweeters, and influencers should be users of the service and disclose any compensation.
- Educate all professionals on messaging, not just marketers. Statements in emails, articles, publications, interviews, handbooks, etc. may also be problematic.
- What is not said can also cause trouble. Omissions of fact may also be actionable.
- Only make claims if supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence. If relying on surveys or data, avoid bias (g., can’t cherry-pick). Even if literally true, statistics can still be found to leave a false impression.
- Avoid suggesting responsibility for third-parties, independent contractors, or aspects of care beyond what you are providing (g., suggesting a whole team approach when some providers are not under your control).
- Consider disclaimers, disclosures, or explanations where appropriate, but disclaimers are not panaceas and can sometimes backfire.
In sum, determine your core promise and relay it consistently and without embellishment. Marketers should also be aware of requirements regarding protected health information, internet privacy, telemarketing, marketing to Medicare beneficiaries, gifts to patients, testimonials and endorsements, native advertising, required proof of claims, etc. Your legal counsel, whether in-house or external, can help. Also, the Federal Trade Commission provides useful guidance. While there is a lot to consider, a good checkup of your marketing, the development of a plan and controls, and annual reviews help manage the risk.
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