Advertising is recognized as a necessity in almost all business entities - unless you’re Costco who notoriously spends zero money on traditional advertising. In private physiotherapy practice your patients need a way to find you and you need to be able to explain the services you offer to them. It is straight forward to let someone know the name of your business, where they can find you and how they can contact you. However, how services are explained, and the methods used to target the potential consumer are where issues arise.
Advertising within the context of physiotherapy must be honest, verifiable and uphold the public’s trust of the profession. Physiotherapists are regulated health professionals whose advertisements promote health services, and as such, they hold themselves to a standard that sets them apart from people selling used cars or electronics. This expectation applies to all forms of advertising whether you’re on social media trying to pump up your TikTok hits, putting up a billboard downtown or utilizing print media. The key point to this article is if you are advertising and promoting your clinic or physiotherapy services it needs to be done professionally and it must follow the expectations set out in the Standards of Practice and Code of Ethical Conduct.
So now that you know what your responsibilities are as a professional let’s jump into the College’s top 10 list of advertising issues!
- Inducements: No, you can’t offer inducements of any kind. There should be no giveaways or prizes for people to access services at your practice or to even get them in the door. Patients should access services because they need to and not to obtain a prize.
- Discounts: No, you cannot offer 10% off services for the Month of July as that is a time-limited price. But you can offer discounts that aren’t time limited such as special pricing for a specific group of patients. It’s important to remember that what you decide to offer in the form of a discount to one patient should apply to everyone in that group. For example, a discount for one senior should apply to all seniors. There are no restrictions as to which groups of people you offer discounts to (seniors, students, members of certain teams, etc.) as long as it is done consistently. It is also important to note that clinic fees and discounts must be clearly displayed for all to see. All patients accessing the clinic should know the discounts available and should be able to advocate to receive those discounts that apply to them.
- Patient testimonials: Yes, you can use patient testimonials. Like any other form of advertising the testimonial must meet the expectations in the Standards of Practice and the Code of Ethical Conduct. People are free to write reviews online about your services but just because someone wrote one doesn’t mean it is appropriate to display in your advertising. Clinics and physiotherapists must make the decision as to whether a testimonial they put into advertising meets the expectations set out by the College. I have listed an example of an appropriate testimonial and an inappropriate testimonial.
Appropriate: “I saw Sean after I hurt my knee playing soccer. He was friendly, professional and I felt he listened to what I had to say and my concerns with getting back to playing soccer this winter”
Inappropriate: “Sean is THE BEST PHYSIO in the city. I would highly recommend getting shockwave therapy for any pain you have; my pain was gone after three sessions. Much better than Leanne, who I saw at Leanne Physio down the street!”
Google reviews will drive an organization’s position within Google searches and having prime search engine optimization is a key part of advertising. However, your interaction with online reviews must maintain a level of professionalism and you need to be careful not to elicit reviews from patients. Physiotherapists at no time should be coercing patients to leave positive online reviews as it can have a negative impact on the patient relationship. You can read more specifically on that in a previous article here.
- Superlative statements: No, you cannot use statements like “Best Physiotherapy Clinic in Edmonton”. If you get awarded that title by a Chamber of Commerce or media outlet you can say thank you, but you cannot use it in your advertising. The statement that you are “The Best” breaks the rule against the use of superlative statements. There are also questions about the process used to decide how your clinic was “the best”. Ultimately, it would be difficult to verify this as a factual statement. So, if you include these awards or words like “best clinic” in your marketing or on your website you need to remove them.
- Misuse of Title: Whether you have a PhD or a DPT you cannot refer to yourself as a “doctor” in your clinical practice. You are a physiotherapist and must present yourself as such. You are not a “medical doctor” and telling patients in a health-care setting that you are a “doctor” misleads the public in terms of your education and services you can provide. Yes, you can use your academic credential, but it must come after your professional title, and you need to be clear what it means when you tell your patient or a member of the public.
- Use of the term “specialist”: Unless you have successfully completed the requirements found here, and have been authorized by the Registrar, you cannot use the word “specialist” in any form in regards to Physiotherapy. The use of an implied specialty also found in the phrase: “Sean specializes in…”, it is a superlative and needs to be removed from advertising. If you list multiple conditions that you “specialize in” implies that you aren’t really specialized in anything.
- Incorrect claims of competency: As long-COVID was identified and physiotherapists found themselves thrust into the treatment of the condition, many practitioners and clinics began advertising that they could be a part of the solution. However, some of those clinics had no practitioners with experience or the competency needed to give the patient the care needed to manage the myriad of symptoms experienced by people with long-COVID. Before the pandemic, the College noticed the same types of marketing related to TMD or vestibular rehabilitation. List out the courses you have taken to develop your competence to treat the conditions you treat.
- Free Assessments/screens: The Old Bait and Switch! You advertise to the public that they can come in for a free foot assessment and when they show up, they get a five-minute screen and get told they need orthotics for a cost of $500. These tactics are unethical and mislead the public and should rightly be prohibited. Free services may be offered for the purposes of:
- Providing general education or health promotion
- Informing the public about physiotherapy services offered
- Rendering an opinion about the propriety of physiotherapy services for an individual patient
You are allowed to offer education to the general public on any subject area that you are competent in. So going to a “new Moms” group or an “elderly walking” group to discuss incontinence or osteoporosis is great, and you can even talk about what you or your clinic offer that may help them. But you can’t render an opinion on anyone’s specific condition as that would require an assessment and offering a free physiotherapy assessment, is prohibited.
- Guaranteeing results: I recently saw on a clinic’s website the statement that “We successfully treat your chronic pain condition, even if you have given up any hope that you could find relief.” Physiotherapy is great for many things but there are no guarantees of success. Wording your advertising to guarantee success both contravene the Standards of Practice and the Code of Ethical Conduct. You can give educated opinions after assessing the patient on their prognosis, but you cannot provide a statement of results to a sub-group of the population or make unsubstantiated claims of success to the public.
Sorry but I lied. There was only nine examples but the pressure to advertise a TOP 10 list was too great…false advertising, I guess.
It is important to remember that every physiotherapist in the province of Alberta is responsible for upholding and adhering to the Code of Ethical Conduct and Standards of Practice put forth by the College of Physiotherapists of Alberta. This means that whether you are responsible for creating the advertising your clinic uses or not, you have a responsibility to be aware of advertising and promotion of your services and to address issues with your employer who is creating or approving the ads when they arise. Regulated health professions cannot compare their advertising and promotion tactics to those seen in retail or other businesses because the expectations differ. It is up to all physiotherapists to uphold and meet those expectations.Sean FitzGerald, PT, Practice Advisor