MOH to make rules clearer as media landscape evolves
BEST medical care available. State-ofthe- art technology. Singapore’s No. 1 clinic. Asia’s leading medical services. Health-care advertisements that carry such statements are flouting advertising guidelines, said the Ministry of Health (MOH). And in a nod to how guidelines need to be even clearer and to keep up with the times, it is now reviewing its publicity regulations under the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act.
This is the first review of the guidelines since 2004 and The Straits Times understands that no date has been set on when it will be completed. MOH has received 124 complaints on health-care ads this year as of Sept 23, versus last year’s 155. In 2009, it received 110 complaints. The complaints, which are being investigated, centre mainly on aesthetic services and were filed by the members of the public, patients and doctors. MOH also conducts surveillance to ensure that publicity materials abide by the regulations.
Under the Act, health-care institutions can state only factual information in ads. They cannot provide information in ways that amount to “soliciting or encouraging the use of services”, said an MOH spokesman. Words and phrases such as “discounts”, “preferential rates” and “valid for (date/time period)” cannot be used. Use of before-and-after photographs is also banned as it is considered to be “encouraging the use” of the institution’s services, according to the Act. Assistant Professor Angela Mak of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University noted that the health-care industry has changed a lot and the Act is “outdated”.
A changing media landscape has also blurred the line between marketing and providing health information. One example is the use of advertorials – paid ads designed to look like reports written by journalists. The rise of online and social media has also introduced grey areas. “Are bloggers paid to ‘evaluate’ the health products and services they feature?” asked Prof Mak, who has conducted studies related to health-care advertising. “And how many of those who ‘like’ the Facebook page of a product or service are actually employees of the health institution or their friends?” The MOH spokesman said it has already consulted several stakeholders, such as professional bodies and health-care providers, as part of the review. This is on top of the Singapore Medical Council’s (SMC’s) review of its ethical code and guidelines announced last month. This set of guidelines has a section that lists how doctors should provide information about their services. The SMC regulates the conduct and ethics of doctors here. Earlier this year, in the Singapore Medical Association’s (SMA’s) list of recommended changes to the ethics code, it had asked MOH and SMC to “harmonise” the various publicity and advertising guidelines. And “where there are contradictions, the stricter requirement should prevail”, said the SMA, which represents 5,300 doctors.
The professional body also said new forms of advertising, such as search engine marketing, and websites like Facebook and Twitter should also be made accountable, in an acknowledgement of evolving media platforms. Of the cases being investigated by MOH, common breaches include having promotional content in the ad, and featuring before-and-after photos. Offenders could be issued warning letters, offered composition or face charges in court. So far, the most serious punishment meted out by the ministry is composition. Generally, this is where the parties agree on a payment to settle the complaint, usually for an amount smaller than what is owed in the initial claim. Under the Act, ads can be placed in media platforms from newspapers and directories to magazines and the Internet. Health-care institutions can also advertise overseas. However, billboards, banners and SMSes are out.
Asked for comments on the review, a spokesman for the private Raffles Medical Group said the review will need to examine advertising on new media platforms. Mr Bernie Poh, acting chief executive of privately run Pacific Healthcare, feels the review will raise the overall standards of the private health-care sector in the long run. He suggested that greater focus could be given to the educational aspect of health-care advertising. Examples include generating awareness of medical conditions that the public lacks knowledge of, or effective treatment techniques that are less well known. Prof Mak is against a health-care scene that “panders to the patient’s desires”. “Giving people what they want, rather than what they need, is often very dangerous,” she said. “In health care, this can waste resources and, at worst, harm the patient’s overall health.”