Doing the Right Thing: Marketing Ethics for Healthcare

Doing the Right Thing: Marketing Ethics for Healthcare

Now that we’ve addressed marketing ethics as a major topic for attorneys, it’s time to take a closer look at how ethics plays in to marketing for the healthcare industry.  It is important to know how to strike the balance between effective marketing and intrusive and questionable practices.

Firstly, healthcare has entered the digital world at a pace and scope that is virtually unprecedented compared with many other industries, and the rules and guidelines have been slow to catch up. In fact, the Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development (SHSMD) had its first major updating of its ethical guidelines in 2010, and that was the first time it had been updated in 20 years. Though they are not a governing body, it shows that sometimes ethics codes can take a while to catch up with the current state of things. Luckily, there are some pretty clear and valuable resources available for marketers operating in the healthcare industry that outlines the acceptable practices being used today. Let’s take a look at a few of them.


The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 was enacted to reduce the costs of administrative operations in the industry by encouraging the electronic transfer of healthcare information. This, of course, brought about concerns about privacy and the rights of the patient.  Much of the content of HIPAA is built around “The Privacy Rule,” which is meant to protect the private information of patients while also allowing the effective flow of information. The problem is, with free flowing of medical records, it becomes easy to target certain individuals for marketing purposes based on their medical history.

HIPAA was partially designed to prevent predatory marketing practices from occurring, and “The Privacy Rule” was created to do just that. But a common misconception is that HIPAA and “The Privacy Rule” forbids doctors or other healthcare providers from marketing to current patients. This is untrue, and very rarely are healthcare professionals reprimanded under the provisions of HIPAA. There are other more detailed marketing-based organizations and regulators that more clearly outline violations and what can be considered unethical acts.

The AMA & the DMA

The Direct Marketing Association works in tandem with the American Medical Association (AMA), and has adopted their three ethical norms for their code of marketing conduct which is available from the Journal of Academic and Business Ethics. They state:

  1. Marketers must do no harm
  2. Marketers must foster truth and trust in the marketing system
  3. Marketers must embrace, communicate, and practice the fundamental ethical values that will improved consumer confidence in the integrity of the marketing exchange system.

The DMA has over 54 articles that focus on proper marketing practices, and they have all been successfully integrated into the AMA’s guidelines as well. The DMA is first and foremost a marketing association, and it is much more aware and focused on the rapidly changing conventions of marketing practices brought about by the information age. This means that for almost any form of healthcare marketing related question, the most valuable resource for a detailed answer is via the DMA guidelines.

Some examples include:

  • The nature of the information collected online for marketing purposes, and the types of uses you make of such information, including uses for online behavioral advertising purposes
  • The use(s) of such information, including whether you transfer information to third parties for use by them for their own marketing or online behavioral advertising purposes and the mechanism by which consumers can exercise choice not to have such information transferred
  • Whether personally identifiable information is collected by, used by, or transferred to agents (entities working on your behalf) as part of the business activities related to the 29 visitor’s actions on the site or application, including to fulfill orders or to provide information or requested services
  • Whether you use cookies or other passive means of information collection, and whether such information collected is for internal purposes or transferred to third parties for marketing purposes, including online behavioral advertising purposes
  • What procedures your organization has put in place for accountability and enforcement purposes; and that your organization maintains appropriate physical, electronic, and administrative safeguards to protect information collected online and keeps your personal information secure
  • If your organization maintains a process for a consumer who uses or visits your website or mobile application to review and request changes to any of their personally identifiable information that is collected through the website or mobile application, you should describe that process

This is the starting point for digital marketing for healthcare. It’s worth noting that neither the AMA nor the DMA’s ethical practices are law, that power lies within the provisions of HIPAA, but DMA is much more updated with current acceptable ethical practices for healthcare marketing, as they collect thousands of inquires a year.

Again, healthcare is a rapidly changing industry, and the marketing conventions are changing with it to fit the digital age. Use these resources as your compass to develop your new healthcare marketing strategies, and you’ll stay on the right side of the new trends.

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