Dr Sally Old, MDU medico-legal adviser, explains how practice managers can factor in commercial, ethical and regulatory considerations when using digital media and marketing techniques to promote their practice
Social media and other digital communications give practices the change to reach not only potential new patients, but also to provide existing patients with up-to-date information.
But, as the internet is always changing, it is important to keep your practice’s website and digital marketing materials current to reflect changing tastes and technology. For example, it is increasingly important that websites can be viewed from a mobile device as well as a traditional desktop.
One advantage of using digital marketing and communications is that it provides an opportunity to engage with your potential patients. Successful practice websites often have content and keywords to make them easier to find for patients searching for information or advice about a particular health concern.
It might be a good idea to research other health providers to see what they do well. For example, the NHS website is not primarily a marketing tool but it has a lot of useful information for the public about health conditions and treatments, all written and displayed in an accessible way for users.
Top tips for search engine optimisation
To ensure your website can be seen by your target audience, the content needs to be search-engine friendly. Here are a few pointers to make your site patient and search-engine friendly:
- Be helpful – think about the questions your patients typically have during appointments and try to answer them
- Write in a language they can understand and avoid jargon
- Break up text into readable chunks as a page of densely written copy is unlikely to be read
- Highlight your unique selling points, eg location, innovative diagnostic techniques or procedures, your experience and qualifications.
- Watch image sizes – slow page loading is frustrating for users
- Consider different types of content – articles, blogs, Q&As and even videos will help broaden your appeal
- Think keywords – what are the most relevant search terms and phrases for your target audience?
- Provide clear menus and links to other pages on your site to aid navigation
- Ensure the site is mobile-friendly
Additionally, here are some top tips for how this can be achieved without violating commercial, ethical and regulatory considerations.
Follow the GMC guidance
It is important to remember the GMC’s guidance on communicating information in Good Medical Practice (paragraphs 68-71) which states ‘[you must] be honest and trustworthy in all your communication with patients and colleagues’ and that ‘when advertising your services, you must make sure the information you publish is factual and can be checked, and does not exploit patients’ vulnerability or lack of medical knowledge’.
Even if you have delegated copywriting to someone else, it is important to double check information to ensure it is accurate and avoids making claims for services that could be misleading. Inaccurate or misleading content could lead to a General Medical Council investigation.
Be legal, truthful and up-to-date
All marketing material must conform to the code published by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which enforces the code, can demand the withdrawal of adverts. Cases can also be referred to the Office of Fair Trading by the advertising watchdog.
Ensure you regularly check and update marketing and advertising information on the practice website and any social media accounts to avoid misunderstandings and complaints. Ideally, any practice website should include the following policies and information:
- Terms and conditions covering visitors’ use of the site, eg copyright notices, disclaimers for third-party links, etc.
- Practice complaints policy
- CQC registration
Ensure consent is obtained before using confidential patient information
Patients need to give consent for the use of their confidential information in marketing material, including photographs and testimonials, which should be both contemporaneous and specific. Patients need to understand precisely what information will be retained, displayed or published, where and when it will be used, who will see it and the likely consequences. The patient should not be identifiable unless absolutely necessary. Even if the patient cannot be identified, their consent should still be sought.
Consent can be withdraw at any time by the patient, so the practice must maintain control of the information. Particular care should be taken with materials posted online, which are more difficult to control. For example, it might be possible for photographs you place online to be copied and used elsewhere. If in any doubt, contact your medical defence organisation for specific advice.