The Ethics of Healthcare Marketing

Spend an evening watching television on any network in pretty much any town in America and you’d probably think that Big Pharma had already created a pill for anything that might ail ya. And, of course, in some ways, that’s not entirely wrong.

Today we have a world of therapies to extend our lives and help make those lives worth living, even in the face of historically lethal conditions, from diabetes to HIV/AIDS.

But that doesn’t change the fact that medicine is still a business. And, like most any business, healthcare systems, clinics, and practitioners alike often live or die on the power of marketing. Unlike other businesses, though, the healthcare industry is meant to serve a mission far higher than maximizing profits.

And that means striking the appropriate balance between marketing to keep your practice solvent and maintaining the highest ethical standards of patient care.

A Matter of Survival

There’s no question that the world of business is becoming increasingly cutthroat. In the face of globalization, with its falling prices and rising competition, marketing to your target customer is no longer just a luxury, it’s a necessity.

That’s true even for the healing profession, and Big Pharma has taken notice. It’s currently estimated that American pharmaceutical companies spend more than $20 billion annually marketing to doctors, trying to incentivize doctors to prescribe their products, even for “off-label” uses. That’s more than quintuple the amount they spend marketing directly to consumers.

And what doctors get in return are both support and incentives. New and growing practices often rely on the perks offered by Big Pharma to promote their wares, while physicians enjoy the fringe benefits, from free fancy dinners to lucrative speakership deals.

But it’s not only that clinicians are being courted to market the pharmaceutical companies’ preferred products inside the office. Healthcare providers are also turning to the marketing of their practices to stand out in an ever-crowded field.

This is not, in itself, considered a violation of professional ethics. However, ethical boundaries may easily and quickly be breached where there is a lack of transparency, an overt or covert effort to misrepresent the practice or its practitioners, or misappropriation or abuse of private patient data.

This sounds reasonable in theory, but in practice, the gray area is profound. The commercialization of healthcare may all too easily lend itself to the least savory practices of the marketing industry: hyperbolic claims and false promises, the denigration of competitors, the degradation of the profession.

A Human Face

As important as the commercial motivations of healthcare marketing may be, however, these are not the only concerns. There are, in fact, other and more patient-oriented concerns.

The most significant of these, perhaps, is the fact that marketing can, indeed, play a critical role in patient education. Healthcare is a profoundly data-driven industry, and yet Big Data can be inaccessible or incomprehensible to many patients.

Patient stories and testimonials can help humanize all those numbers and statistics. They can speak to the lived experience behind the metrics, reaching target audiences through compassion, empathy, and mutual understanding.

That’s something that, in most cases, cold, hard data just can’t do. And, perhaps most importantly, patient and family stories are often far more than mere marketing tools. They’re educational resources, teaching patients and loved ones about the “on-the-ground” experience of diagnoses and treatments. When you’re managing your healthcare, being so informed about your condition and your options can literally be lifesaving, particularly when it comes to decreasing your likelihood for misdiagnosis or improper care.

The problem, though, is that patient narratives can easily become appropriating and exploitative. Worse, they may easily violate patients’ privacy, their rights to control the use and dissemination of often deeply personal and highly sensitive information. It is for this reason, in particular, that any healthcare marketing strategy must be directed by rigorous adherence to HIPAA regulations. Ideally, this would mean ensuring that any healthcare marketing team be staffed with at least one specialist in HIPAA-compliant marketing.

The Takeaway

There are, perhaps, few professions in which morality and ethics matter as much as in the field of medicine. Patients entrust their healthcare providers, quite literally, with their lives. Loved ones turn the care of the most precious people in the world to them over to professionals. But that does not negate the fact that medicine is also a business. And even the best clinicians must market their services if their practices are to survive. However, while marketing in healthcare is vulnerable to the same ethical dilemmas and risks of traditional marketing, the moral and legal standards that must be met are far higher — as they should be.

Beau Peters is a freelance writer based out of Portland, OR. He has a particular interest in covering workers' rights, social justice, and workplace issues and solutions. Read other articles by Beau.