Authorities review healthcare ad regulations

The Ministry of Health (MOH) is reviewing its regulations for health-care marketing, to keep up with the evolution of the media landscape.

According to The Straits Times, this is the first time the MOH is reviewing guidelines under the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Act since 2004. Currently under the Act, health-care institutions may only state factual information in ads. For instance, claims such as "Best medical care available" or "Singapore's No.1 clinic" will be considered a flouting of these guidelines.

Words and phrases such as "discounts", "preferential rates" and "valid for (date/time period)" may not be used as well.

The use of before-and-after photos is also not allowed as this is seen to be encouraging the use of the institution's service. According to local media reports, offenders may be issued warning letters, offered composition (where parties agree to settle on a lesser payment amount than what was initially owed) or face charges in court.

Ads may be placed on platforms such as newspapers, directories, magazines and the internet, but not on billboards, banners and SMSes. The MOH will also conduct checks to make sure publicity materials abide by regulations.

While no date has yet been set for the completion of this review, industry players said the move will benefit the industry overall.

To Hsien-Hsien Lei, director, medical communications, Ogilvy Health, Singapore the review came as no surprise as new communication platforms online and via telemarketing have increased in influence over the last few years.

"Existing guidelines on the use of certain words, phrases and types of imagery that can be used in ads may be viewed as limitations but we see it as allowing us greater clarity on what's possible and what's not," he said.

Industry players also agreed to the fact that Healthcare regulation largely benefits the industry and pushes brands and agencies alike to be more strategic and creative in the work.

"When we work with our clients, we think about what the core issues are for them - is it awareness? Education? Access?  This helps you arrive at solutions that make a real difference, as opposed to delivering canned PR tricks," Cathleen Witter, account director and APAC healthcare practice lead, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide said.

Darren Magick, Southeast Asia MD, McCann Healthcare Worldwide too said the amendments would further strengthen what is already a robust set of health communications regulations in Singapore and put it on par with global best practice for the industry.

"This will mean adhering to a higher standard of evidence-based healthcare marketing practices, which is ultimately good for consumers and healthcare practitioners alike," he said.

However, industry watchers said that grey areas such as online and social media must be taken into consideration while reviewing the regulations.

However, assistant professor Angela Mak of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication at Nanyang Technological University told The Straits Times: "Are bloggers paid to ‘evaluate' the health products and services they feature? And how many of those who like the Facebook page of a product or service are actually employees of the health institution or their friends?"