Policyholder Services



Advertising for Medical Services

Anne M. Menke, RN, PhD, OMIC Risk Manager

Digest, Summer/Fall 2004

Allegations related to physician advertising are surfacing with increasing regularity in medical malpractice claims. In addition to alleging lack of informed consent, patients are using state consumer protection laws to claim that the physician defrauded them. This exposes the physician to punitive damages and other uninsured risks.

Physician advertising is regulated by state law as well as by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under provisions of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA). The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) have issued guidelines to advise their members on relevant ethical and professional standards.

Advertising “includes any oral or written communication to the public made by or on behalf of an ophthalmologist that is intended to directly or indirectly request or encourage the use of the ophthalmologist’s professional medical services … for reimbursement” (ASCRS Guidelines). These guidelines therefore apply to print, radio, and television advertisements as well as to informational brochures, seminars, videos, and the Internet.

The FTCA prohibits deceptive or unfair practices related to commerce and “prohibits the dissemination of any false advertisement to induce the purchase of any food, drug, or device.” The FTCA and the professional guidelines state unequivocally that advertising for medical and surgical services must be truthful and accurate. It cannot be deceptive or misleading because of (1) a failure to disclose materials facts, or (2) an inability to substantiate claims – for efficacy, safety, permanence, predictability, success, or lack of pain – made explicitly or implicitly by the advertisement. It must balance the promotion of the benefits with a disclosure of the risks and be consistent with material included in the informed consent discussion and documents.

Lack of Informed Consent Allegations

When not carefully crafted, advertising runs the risk of overstating the possible benefits of a procedure and potentially misleading patients into agreeing to undergo surgery without fully understanding or appreciating the consequences and alternatives.

In a sense, an advertisement becomes a ghost-like appendage to boiler-plate informed consent forms. If an advertisement overstates the benefits, misrepresents any facts, or conflicts with other consent documentation or patient education material, it can potentially make a jury believe the physician may have overstepped the line of ethical propriety by creating unrealistic patient expectations. Legally, such a scenario might allow a jury to conclude the patient was not given a full and fair disclosure of the information needed to make a truly informed decision.

Punitive Damages and Other Uninsured Risks

Another pitfall for the ophthalmologist who markets medical services are state laws that may allow the plaintiff to ask for punitive damages, which could double or treble the amount of money awarded to the patient by the jury. Physicians should be particularly concerned about such allegations since most professional liability insurance policies, including OMIC’s, do not pay for such damages.

OMIC’s underwriting guidelines state that advertisements and marketing materials must not be misleading, false, or deceptive and must not make statements that guarantee results or cause unrealistic expectations. In addition, insureds are required to abide by FDA- and FTC-mandated guidelines and state law. OMIC has specific policy language limiting its professional liability coverage to defense costs for claims related to misleading advertisements. No payment of indemnity will be made.

Therefore, if a plaintiff is alleging medical malpractice and has an added allegation of fraud, your OMIC policy will provide defense for both the allegation of malpractice and fraud but would limit any indemnity payment to awards related to the medical malpractice allegation of the lawsuit.

Review of Advertisements

OMIC has developed tools to prevent and/or minimize the risk of these complex cases in the first place and strongly encourages its insureds to evaluate their own advertisements for compliance with policy guidelines. For online assistance, see Advertising Review Form . Under Advertisements for Medical/Surgical Services, you will find a “Review of Advertisement” form to help identify aspects of your advertisement that may be misleading or deceitful. OMIC policyholders who have additional questions or concerns about advertising may contact the Risk Manager at (800) 562-6642, ext. 651.

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