In 2014, 21-year-old Chinese student Wei Zexi was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma—a rare form of cancer that affects joint tissues. Like any other cancer patient, he was treated with radiation and chemotherapy; when these didn’t work, his family sought out other forms of treatment.
That’s when Wei turned to Chinese search engine Baidu.
The top of his search results suggested DC-CIK, an experimental treatment for his disease at a state military-run hospital. Hopeful for the treatment’s promised effectiveness, he spent over $30,000 to cover the costs only for the cure to fail him. He died in April 2016, accusing the medical facility of false advertising.
Wei Zexi’s death isn’t just a personal tragedy; it’s a stark reminder of unethical practices in medical advertising, preying on vulnerable patients.
This is why the MoH (Ministry of Health) established the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics (PHMC) guidelines in 2019. Medical facilities are now regulated on how they can or cannot promote their products and services online through healthcare marketing guidelines.
Let’s delve deeper into the PHMC guidelines, discuss the regulations and how to make proper medical & healthcare ads with the help of a digital marketing agency.
Defining Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics (PHMC) Guidelines
Introduced by the Singaporean government in 2019, PHMC guidelines aim to regulate how healthcare institutions (HCIs) and medical practitioners market their services. This includes social media marketing for medical practices, SEO content and any material posted in the digital landscape.
You will be required to comply with these regulations if you manage a clinic, clinical laboratory or private hospital. If you commit offences and are accused of false advertising, it could tarnish your brand’s reputation and lead to hefty fines.
Working with a reputable digital marketing agency in Singapore can help you manage your brand’s advertising campaigns while complying with the law at all times. Since these regulations cover various platforms and channels in advertising, their deep understanding of the PHMC framework ensures you don’t fall foul of the law.
To get started, let’s discuss the PHMC guidelines in detail:
PHMC Guideline 1: Advertisement Platforms
HCIs should follow several limitations when advertising their services in selected channels. If your ads are displayed on the wrong platform, this could easily land you in legal trouble.
Let’s decode the first guideline and find out the approved advertising platforms:
Newspapers, Magazines, Directories, and Medical Journals
Advertising on traditional printed media like newspapers, magazines and journals is accepted, either through directory listings or paid ad spaces. However, keep in mind that distributing printed materials like brochures and pamphlets requires caution.
While the regulation gives you a green light to print these materials, sending them directly to mailboxes is considered illegal. You can’t insert them into newspaper deliveries as well.
You can instead keep them readily available at your clinic or hospital for patients and visitors. That way, you’re offering information without infringing on privacy or potentially facing legal consequences.
SMS, MMS, Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger
While PHMC guidelines don’t ban all tech-based advertising, it prohibits HCIs from sending unsolicited ads via SMS, MMS, Whatsapp and Messenger.
Just like handing out flyers, you need to get their consent first. Beyond legal repercussions, bombarding people with unwanted ads can damage your reputation.
Social Media and Blog
As of writing, Singapore has approximately 4.9 million active social media users. This is why healthcare services flock to social media platforms to make their brand and services known to the public.
Fortunately, PHMC guidelines allow social media marketing, provided it adheres to existing regulations.
Each social media app allows for targeted advertising to specific demographics. For example, you might leverage YouTube’s high user engagement with creative ads to showcase your institution and its services. Alternatively, you can use Facebook to reach working professionals, while Instagram lets you connect with younger demographics.
Since Google takes the throne as the dominant search engine in Singapore, it’s legal to use SEO and SEM as lead generation methods. They are not considered push technologies, unlike pesky ads and unsolicited messages.
If you decide to go this route, make sure you hire a credible SEO agency to attract organic traffic, capture the right keywords, gain better SEO rankings and focus on SEO optimisation at a lower long-term cost.
The idea of disseminating healthcare advertisements through public channels like billboards, light boxes, LED displays and television sounds great on paper. You’d reach more people and gain round-the-clock exposure, especially in urban areas and busy commercial districts.
Unfortunately, these public channels are not allowed under PHMC guidelines. Non-compliance may result in legal troubles, so you have to stay within the designated media platforms that MoH permits.
Within Physical Premises
The good news is, you have complete autonomy in promoting your services through ads, LED displays and banners when you do it within your premises.
Just remember that even this freedom needs to follow the rules of healthcare advertising. The content should comply with existing regulations to avoid getting reported or sued.
Guideline 2: Display Of Accreditation, Certificates Or Awards
In an attempt to build trust and develop solid relationships with audiences, healthcare services may highlight their achievements over the years. Perhaps your clinic has gained prestigious accolades, instilling confidence in the quality of care your patients will receive.
However, PHMC guidelines have imposed limitations on displaying accreditations. The guidelines state that any awards received by a healthcare institution should only be displayed within its premises, on its website or its social media pages.
You can also showcase awards in your clinic or hospital and even create a dedicated gallery for them on your Facebook page. Just ensure you don’t feature screenshots of such awards in newspaper ads.
Moreover, these displays should not be misleading, deceptive or exaggerated.
Guideline 3: Specific Requirements for the Content of Advertisements
Choosing the right platform for your healthcare ads isn’t enough; you also need to be careful what you say. The content should follow the strict guidelines imposed by MoH, which states that:
Ads Must Be Factually Accurate
All assertions in medical ads should be accurate and supported by evidence. Always include citations and proof to back up your claims to build trust with your audience.
Remember, including unverified statements just to improve market appeal can lead to a legal and PR nightmare.
Ads Must Not Be Offensive, Ostentatious Or In Bad Taste
Make sure that your advertisement avoids any language, information or image that may be offensive or derogatory to the reputation of medical, dental or nursing professions.
When you start designing your ads, imagine what the public’s sentiments will be when they are posted in the digital space. If you think they’ll cause fear, unease and other negative emotions, revise the messaging. Try using a positive tone.
Ads Must Not Create Unjustified Expectations
We understand how competitive the healthcare industry is in Singapore. Wanting to get ahead of your competition is completely valid, but you have to tread carefully. Avoid creating ads that may lead to unjustified expectations among the audience.
As per the PHMC guidelines, you are prohibited from claiming exclusivity in positive outcomes or disparaging your competitors. It is considered illegal to imply in any way, shape or form that other healthcare providers are inferior.
For example, using statements like ‘whiter teeth in 2 weeks’ or ‘instant results with only one session’ is not acceptable. This is because patient experiences may differ, and it’s impossible to guarantee that all outcomes will align with the expected results.
You can instead focus on digital marketing for hospitals or clinics that highlight the varying outcomes of a medical procedure depending on a patient’s condition.
No matter what you do, you have to play fair.
Ads Must Not Contain ‘Before & After’ or ‘After’ Only Pictures
When it comes to digital marketing, putting up comparison pictures to prove a treatment’s effectiveness is usually a good practice. Unfortunately, PHMC guidelines prohibit using ‘before and after’ comparisons in advertising—even if you provide disclaimers.
These images can only used during consultations. They should be explained by qualified professionals while managing expectations about potential treatment outcomes.
Ads Must Not Contain Laudatory Statements
Regardless of the exceptional quality of your patient care, PHMC guidelines stipulate that using laudatory terms in advertising materials is strictly prohibited. This includes:
- Advanced e.g. technology, method, precision
- Number one
- Centre of excellence
- Spectrum of cutting-edge
Ads Must Not Contain Testimonials
While patient testimonials and word-of-mouth are the gold standard of healthcare marketing, using them in third-party platforms is not allowed under the PHMC guidelines.
Let’s say you want to advertise your healthcare services in a newspaper. In this case, you’re prohibited from citing your patient’s words about how effective or efficient the treatment has been.
However, the only exception for using your patients’ testimonials is when they are published within your controlled spaces such as your clinic, website or social media channels. Patients may also give their feedback on your services by posting on their own social media accounts; just don’t bribe them with any form of compensation for praise!
Ads Must Not Solicit The Use Of HCI Services
While giving discounts is a common practice to attract more customers among digital marketing agencies, it’s not allowed in healthcare advertising. You can’t promote your services by offering promotions, free gifts, interest-free payments, lucky draws and other financial benefits.
This includes using certain phrases like ‘lowest price offer’, ‘package deal’, ‘50% off’ and other ad content containing validity periods.
How To Craft Compelling and PHMC-Compliant Healthcare Ads
Learning about these PHMC guidelines can feel extremely restricting on your end, especially when it comes to making persuasive advertising campaigns. Even the thought of putting something out there—even if it doesn’t violate anything—makes you feel on edge. It seems like you’re stepping on a land mine.
What if there are competitors or regulatory watchdogs just waiting for you to make a mistake so you’ll land in legal trouble? Not to mention that creating compelling content that adheres to PHMC guidelines is already challenging enough.
Luckily, you can collaborate with a SEM agency to make sure your healthcare ads remain PHMC-compliant. But if you decide to go the DIY route, here are some concepts you can follow to stay within the bounds of law:
Debunk Common Myths
When medical practitioners debunk common myths, they let their audience know that they have a profound understanding of their field. This form of medical ad, however, will require you to take an evidence-based approach.
First, you have to identify the myths you want to debunk. Make a list of common misconceptions related to the medical topic you’re addressing. For example, if you’re in the mental health field, here are some examples of myths you may want to discuss:
- Mental health problems are permanent.
- Seeking help is a sign of weakness.
- You can ‘snap out of it’ and ‘get over your issues’ on your own.
Make sure you communicate your message in plain, easy-to-understand language. As much as possible, avoid using medical jargon and use terms that your target audience can comprehend.
Don’t forget to back up your claims with evidence from reputable sources like expert opinions and scientific studies. Add citations and references to enhance the credibility of your message.
Make Your Approach More Consultative
As a healthcare professional, one of the most important things you do when you deal with a patient is ask them questions. You ask what brings them in today, know about their symptoms, learn their family history and take note of the medications they take.
Adopting the same approach in your advertising can be helpful. Instead of jumping straight into a sales pitch, consider using questions in your ad and landing pages. In this way, you’ll craft your message for the right people at the right time.
Make Your Ads Visual
The healthcare industry is filled with valuable information and jargon to the brim, often readily available for public consumption. The problem is, not everyone has the time to consume textbook-like ads. This can seem overwhelming and boring, particularly for people who don’t have that much time to spare.
This is where well-designed visuals come into play. This helps cut through information overload and offers a concise way to communicate key messages.
Powerful visuals can also evoke positive emotions like trust, reassurance and hope. Pictures of happy patients and relatable struggles help build empathy for the advertised condition or treatment. For this concept, consider using visual formats like infographics, carousel images and videos for YouTube advertising.
However, the responsible use of visuals in medical ads is encouraged. Be mindful of cultural sensitivities, ensure visuals are accurate and representative of the advertised treatment, and make them accessible to people with disabilities.
Show You Care
In an industry where healthcare institutions offer similar treatments, the key to standing out is showing the clinic’s or doctor’s commitment to community service. This sends a message that genuine care isn’t just limited to clinical work.
For example, if your head doctor is a volunteer or an educator, highlight this on your website. You can also craft your clinic’s philosophy, vision and mission that states how you’re willing to go the extra mile for your patient’s well-being.
Create a Sense of Urgency
Although healthcare institutions are prohibited from offering limited promotions, you can still spark a sense of urgency in your ads.
For example, instead of using a common call-to-action like ‘Book an appointment today’, you can trigger your audience’s fear of missing out by replacing it with ‘Request an appointment’. It highlights limited appointment slots and waiting lists, encouraging prompt booking.
You can also share success stories with a sense of urgency, showcasing positive outcomes for those who acted promptly.
On the surface, it seems like these healthcare marketing guidelines have been imposed by the government to limit how healthcare institutions can advertise their products and services. It’s like a cuff on your hands, preventing you from reaching more people and making a real change.
However, this isn’t entirely true. PHMC guidelines are implemented not to limit anyone but to protect patients and maintain ethical standards.
These regulations aim to prevent exaggerated claims that could exploit patients’ vulnerabilities or encourage them to make uninformed decisions about their health.
Besides, as people working in the healthcare industry, your priority is the well-being and trust of your patients. You need to ensure the safety of those you serve.
Navigating PHMC guidelines may feel difficult when you do it on your own. That’s why Roots Digital is here to help you advertise your services and treatments through PHMC-compliant ads. Our healthcare digital marketing team has handled HCIs, increased conversion rates and improved their lead generation.
What is the primary objective of the PHMC guidelines?
The primary objective of the PHMC guidelines is to ensure the delivery of high-quality healthcare services, patient safety, and compliance with regulatory standards. It aims to protect patients from misleading ads, exaggerated claims and medical practitioners using marketing to prey on vulnerable patients.
Who needs to follow PHMC guidelines?
All private hospitals, medical clinics and medical practitioners promoting their services in Singapore must comply with the PHMC guidelines.
What are some examples of prohibited advertising practices under PHMC regulations?
Some examples of prohibited advertising practices under PHMC regulations include using before and after pictures, portraying treatments as miraculous and exaggerated claims.