Marketing Ethics In Healthcare – What You Should Know!

By Steven Krohn · March 13, 2019

Marketing ethics in healthcare have been a topic of hot debate for years. Should healthcare organizations, hospitals and practices spend large amounts of advertising dollars to attract patients? Shouldn’t they rely on patients naturally drifting towards quality health care organizations?

Today’s rapidly changing world of healthcare has made marketing a requirement and not a choice. It’s not a debate if you wish to succeed in building your practice.  Patients no longer simply choose the closest hospital or practice as a matter of course. Gone are the days when a physician referral guaranteed appointments.

Today is the age of marketing ethics in healthcare.

Still, we struggle — should we be trying to convince patients to come to us? Isn’t it unethical to use marketing methods to lure them in? Let’s take a look at marketing ethics in healthcare, and how marketing can actually benefit patients.

Advertising & Marketing Ethics In Healthcare

Firstly, where does this idea that marketing healthcare is unethical come from?

For that, we have to go all the way back to 1847. The American Medical Association unveiled its first code of marketing ethics. It included the following:

“It is derogatory to the dignity of the profession, to resort to public advertisements or private cards or handbills, inviting the attention of individuals affected with particular diseases; publicly offering advice and medicine to the poor gratis, or promising radical cures or to publish cases and operations in the daily prints or suffer such publications to be made; to invite laymen to be present at operations; to boast of cures and remedies; to adduce certificates of skill and success; or to perform any other similar acts.

These are the ordinary practices of empirics, and are highly reprehensible in a regular physician.”

We have to realize that this was a time when snake oil salesmen were touting their “miracle cures”. The AMA was trying to disassociate true physicians from these uneducated and often fraudulent quacks as much as possible.

It was a hundred years before an actual ban was put in place, in 1947. The AMA faced many issues with physicians promoting certain pharmaceutical and everyday products—one example being cigarettes. These restrictions were lifted by the AMA in 1957 to allow for “softer” tactics such as networking and physician referral building.

The Shift In Ethical Business Standards In Healthcare

The business of healthcare shifted in the 1970s, presenting major obstacles for medical ethics in healthcare. Patients stopped being primarily physician referred, and instead began to choose healthcare based on preferences.

The 1970s saw the rise of public relations departments amongst large provider organizations and hospitals. Informal promotions, such as sponsored seminars and community events, also saw a drastic increase. Even with these tactics, few organizations found ways to utilize marketing to gain recognition amongst their local communities.

Then in 1980 the Federal Trade Commission ruled that the AMA’s ban was effectively restricting trade in the medical field. Today, pharmaceuticals are still tightly controlled when it comes to marketing, while physician boards continue to provide ethical standards for marketing hospitals and practices.

It is much easier for healthcare organizations to leverage traditional and digital marketing and advertising platforms available today than ever before. In other words, they practice marketing ethics in healthcare.

Medicine Is a Profession – Healthcare Is a Business

This might seem controversial to some, but a fear of marketing ethics in healthcare actually stands in the way of helping patients get the care they need.

Online searches are the dominant tool for most people looking for healthcare. It’s just a fact that if prospective patients can’t find you online, they’ll just move on. You can also rule out referrals altogether if you’re not actively campaigning to build brand recognition online.  That takes a high degree of marketing ethics in healthcare.

Not only will patients move on to different organizations, they might not get the proper care if you are not presented in the appropriate manner. If you offer great care — and of course you do — don’t you owe it to your patients to help them stay educated and confident that your organization is the right choice?

We say again:

Medicine is a profession!

Healthcare is a business!

You and your team deserve to be known in your community, while prospective patients deserve to know there’s quality healthcare out there for them. Even if you are physician referred, patients will likely search for your organization online first to feel confident that you are the right choice for their healthcare needs.

You owe it to yourself and your patients to provide accurate information and marketing that guides them to the best choice. In other words take the time to show marketing ethics in healthcare.

Marketing Ethics In Healthcare

After all this, are you still worried about ethics in marketing your organization? Here are some specific guidelines recommended and/or enforced among most physician groups worldwide.

  • Adhere to all marketing and advertising guidelines set forth by your medical boards.
  • Ensure you remain HIPAA compliant and cover all legal bases when using actual patient information.
  • If you can’t prove it, don’t say it.
  • If you can’t deliver it, don’t promise it.
  • Don’t build yourself up by tearing others down. Prove your value through your own expertise and skill.

These are just a few of the common guidelines we see and follow as our own marketing ethics in healthcare.


If you need help in your healthcare marketing strategies and efforts, don’t hesitate to contact us.

We will customize a campaign that will work for YOUR needs and produce a very healthy ROI – guaranteed!

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Becky Tengwall

Great article! I found the history of marketing within the healthcare arena very interesting. This same controvery of ethical marketing has been true with accounting professionals over the years, as well.