In brief

In an advisory released on November 25 2020, the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) strongly cautioned medical practitioners against participating in online search engine optimisation platforms that make use of patient and feedback ratings, or buying packages from the same for the purpose of obtaining patient testimonials. Doing so may be construed as making or expressly agreeing to the use of patient testimonials in their advertising, in contravention of provisions under SMC’s Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (ECEG) and the Handbook of Medical Ethics (“Handbook“).


Comments

Following the recent controversies surrounding the use of unverifiable patient reviews and the profiling of medical practitioners without their consent on a health and wellness online platform, the SMC’s advisory is a timely caution of the risks that medical practitioners may incur through their voluntary association with these platforms.

Restrictions against the use of patient testimonials in advertisements not only apply to medical practitioners via the ECEG and Handbook but also to healthcare institution licensees by way of the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics (Advertisement) Regulations 2019 (“PHMC Regulations“). These restrictions form part of a larger body of advertising standards set out in the ECEG, Handbook and PHMC Regulations which function to protect patients and the wider public against the propagation of false or misleading information.

Given that the contravention of any of these provisions will result in a variety of penalties such as disciplinary proceedings or fines, both individual medical practitioners and healthcare institutions would do well to closely consider the relevant laws, codes and guidance documents before proceeding with an advertising campaign or collaboration.

In more detail

In an advisory released on 25 November 2020, the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) has strongly cautioned medical practitioners against participating in online search engine optimisation platforms that make use of patient and feedback ratings, or buying packages from the same for the purpose of obtaining patient testimonials. Doing so may be construed as making or expressly agreeing to the use of patient testimonials in their advertising, in contravention of provisions under SMC’s Ethical Code and Ethical Guidelines (ECEG) and the Handbook of Medical Ethics (“Handbook“).

The ECEG and Handbook prohibit testimonials from being used in advertising on any media where medical practitioners have control over the content about themselves as they fall short of the medical advertising standards in place to maintain the public’s trust in and respect of the profession. In contrast to the prohibition against laudatory medical advertisements, patient testimonials are inherently subjective and, as such, cannot accurately or truthfully portray the entirety of the medical practitioner’s practice or represent the collective views of their patients. Testimonials made by famous persons or celebrities may also be deemed sensational.

More broadly, the use of patient testimonials by healthcare institution licensees is also restricted by the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics (Advertisement) Regulations 2019 (“PHMC Regulations“). In particular, Regulation 4(1)(f) prohibits the advertisements of healthcare institutions from displaying, disseminating, or publishing any testimonial or endorsement about their services or employees unless it falls within one of the exceptions listed below:

RegulationRequirements
12(1)
  • The testimonial is displayed, published or disseminated within the premises where the services of the healthcare institution or its employees are provided, or on that healthcare institution’s website or social media account or social network service.
  • The testimonial was given by the person directly to, and is not reproduced by the healthcare institution licensee.
12(2)
  • The testimonial is published in the healthcare institution’s corporate publications distributed only to the licensee’s employees.
  • The testimonial satisfies the requirements listed in Regulation 12(1).

 

The contravention of provisions under the ECEG and Handbook may lead to disciplinary proceedings, while any breach of Regulations 8 or 12(1) of the Regulations will incur a fine of up to SGD 2,000.

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