Why registered health practitioners can’t use testimonials on their websites or in their advertising
If you have come here from surfing the web looking for information about fear of flying or other anxieties, you may have noticed that both Australian and international sites featuring psychologists sometimes also include testimonials. Some of these are anonymous and some from clients or patients who allow their identities to be publicly known.
These testimonials are universally positive of course – who would include a negative review or outcome and expect to stay in business? This is why there are now patient or consumer sites popping up evaluating health professionals and sharing that information with other prospective users.
I’m all for that.
But I have a challenge to share with you. There are some local Australian fear of flying sites which employ psychologists but are owned, managed and staffed by non-psychologists who use testimonials.
I am forbidden by law to use testimonials.
Because I am a registered health provider – an Endorsed Clinical Psychologist – with the Australian Health Practitioners Regulatory Agency (AHPRA) I heed its regulations which forbid the use of testimonials. I can’t even include references from fellow practitioners including other psychologists, GPs and Psychiatrists who refer to me expressing their satisfaction with the referral of their patients to me. Even the official evaluations of psychologists attending my workshops (the good and the bad) can’t be included on this website for fear of being interpreted as a testimonial. As a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society, I am also not permitted to include testimonials. (The APS continues to seek clarification about advertising from AHPRA).
What’s the problem with reading of others’ success in a fear of flying program?
It’s an important question in today’s age of consumer protection regulations.
Here is what AHPRA says about Testimonials:
2. What is a testimonial?
The National Law prohibits the use of testimonials or purported testimonials in advertising. Testimonials are statements making a recommendation about a service or its quality.
This means it is not acceptable to use testimonials in your own advertising, such as on your facebook page, in a print ad or on your website.
The National Law does not prohibit the use of social media or comments in social media if they do not involve a practitioner or their representative advertising a regulated health service.
The guidelines do not prohibit unsolicited public discussion and opinion sharing about practitioners outside the context of advertising a regulated health service.
Believe it or not, before this revision in March 2014, AHPRA’s regulation was that registered practitioners were obligated to ask owners of websites which included reviews to take them down. Not surprisingly, there was a huge outcry from many specialists – especially physicians and surgeons – who said they had better things to do each night after a heavy day of work than monitor the internet for references to them!
I once asked a review site to take down a review of my practice and of course they refused – sensibly. But I had an electronic “paper” trail of my effort to abide by the now-changed law so believed I had covered myself.
But we now have amended laws, and so I’m safe for the moment.
The reasons most often given for the prohibition of testimonials are that:
1. It lowers the status of the profession in the eyes of the consuming public, placing us on the same level as the various shills, snake-oil salesmen, perpetuators of frauds, and other denizens of the internet who have no obligation to abide by a Code of Ethics designed to protect patients, and who extensively employ testimonials.
2. Testimonials by definition present only the most positive aspects and outcomes of the work of the professional, when in fact, this may not be the case for all patients. It overpromises on what the profession can deliver when in fact the evidence may be that not all outcomes may be so positive. In other words, while going into a change process with hope is generally good thing, false hope is decidedly not a good thing.
3. Confidentiality issues are central. A registered practitioner cannot name or identify a patient even when that patient gives permission, as far as I am concerned. I don’t have a problem with showing pictures of my work as long as I have reasonably done what I can to hide my patient’s identity. Without writing about patient care, other patients and professionals are disadvantaged in their learning, and the Case Study method of learning would end – not a good thing.
4. This last part is a little controversial but I’ll have a go anyway.
By not allowing testimonials, the public is more likely to interpret all registered practitioners as equal in training, competence, and outcome successes.
My own view is that to use a registered title like “Psychologist or Clinical Psychologist” conveys both privilege and responsibility, and a minimum of training to reach an agreed-upon standard. That doesn’t mean you are guaranteed a successful outcome.
More and more, we will hear of practitioners quoting evidence to suggest what the chances of a successful outcome will be, based on published data when certain procedures are followed.
So a spinal surgeon may say, “With your diagnosis, the likely success of the surgery I propose performing is…, the likelihood of relapse is…. the time spent in recuperation and off work is…”, and this is all based on both the surgeon’s own history, and that of the published data which may cite thousands of similar procedures.
Here are my words of advice:
Be very careful of any health professional, or service that uses health professionals, who say they have had 100% success, and never a bad outcome. Ask yourself if this is truly possible, if your hopes are getting ahead of the reality, and what are the qualities and ethics of such a service who would make such claims based on a few published testimonials?