Medical Council

The following is our response to the Medical Council’s Consultation on advertising in relation to the use of testimonials:

 

  1. Do you agree with Council’s proposed prohibition of the use of testimonials in medical advertising? Why or why not?

Yes, we agree with the proposal. Patients are generally not in a good position to able to critically evaluate whether the medical service they have received has been successful, especially given what we understand about the placebo effect. Testimonials should therefore not be considered as evidence of efficacy, but there is a likelihood that patients will not understand this nuance.

Because testimonials are an emotional, rather than evidence based, method of convincing someone to use a product or service, there is a risk that they will lead patients to an erroneous conclusion. At the Society for Science Based Healthcare we believe that everyone has the right to be properly informed about their healthcare, and we feel that testimonials would therefore undermine this right.

As primary healthcare providers, we would like to see doctors focusing on provision of a quality service. Doctors’ advertisements should ideally limit themselves to statements of fact, such as a listing the services offered by the surgery and opening hours. Competitive advertising would not generally benefit the patient, but would rather tend to promote an environment where doctors are expending money and effort attracting patients.

We agree with the NZMA Code of Ethics[1] and ANZA Guideline No 4[2], in that The Medicines Act[3] effectively prohibits testimonials when it comes to medical products and services. It seems logical that this prohibition would encompass health testimonials regarding doctors.

A google search for doctors in New Zealand using testimonials thankfully only returns a few prominent results, so it is encouraging to see that the use of testimonials by doctors is not currently a popular practice in this country. Some of the more obvious examples of doctors using testimonials are:

Although some of the websites above use fairly benign testimonials, such as talking about a doctor’s demeanour, the last two in particular are worrying. These sites both make claims of efficacy about alternative treatments offered by medical doctors, and the claims do not appear to align with current best evidence for these treatments.

Dr Steve Joe uses many discredited therapies to diagnose and treat his patients, such as applied kinesiology, herbal supplements, acupuncture, live blood analysis and Emotional Freedom Tapping (or “Technique”). Additionally, it appears that questionable conditions are diagnosed – both those that are not evidence based, and those that are frequently misdiagnosed by alternative medicine practitioners. These include adrenal fatigue, mould toxicity, leaky gut and heavy metal poisoning. Many of these conditions and treatments are mentioned in the testimonials that Dr Steve Joe uses, lending undue credibility to them.

Dr Helen Smith’s website (Auckland Holistic Centre) has similar issues, with adrenal fatigue and gluten sensitivity being diagnosed, and chia seeds and herbal remedies being prescribed.

Cosmetic surgery websites appear to use testimonials as evidence of a surgeon’s abilities, which is unsurprising for elective surgery of this kind. Cosmetic surgery is a more competitive arena than general practice, but the point still stands that patient testimonials are not a trustworthy measure of the abilities of a surgeon.

We believe that Footnote 7, prohibiting the solicitation of testimonials, is a sensible step to take.  We are concerned about how hard it would be to ensure that doctors are not soliciting testimonials on third party websites from patients, but we are unsure of how best this could be effectively policed.

 

  1. Do you agree with Council’s proposed definition of ‘testimonial’? What other changes (if any) should Council incorporate in its definition of ‘testimonial’?

Yes, we agree with the definition of testimonial. The definition is comprehensive, and appears unambiguous.

 

  1. Are there any other changes that Council should incorporate to Clause 13?

No. We feel that the Medical Council has carefully considered the rewording of this clause, and that the proposed new clause will be a positive update to the Statement on Advertising. Of note is the use of the word “must” rather than “should”, which we believe is a justifiably strong stance on this issue.

We would like to thank the Medical Council for taking this proactive step towards protecting consumers. Although medical testimonials might not currently be a major problem in New Zealand, there is potential for this method of advertising to be used more heavily in the future, and we feel that prohibiting testimonials in medical advertising is a sensible preemptive measure for the Medical Council to take.

References

[1] NZMA Code of Ethics
[2] ANZA Guideline No. 04 – Testimonials and Professional Endorsement
[3] Medicines Act 1981, Section 58

Submission on the Amendment to the Medical Council’s Statement on advertising in relation to the use of testimonials