September Blog: First, Do No Harm: Ethics in Healthcare Marketing

In these times when COVID rages through our communities, the public is increasingly susceptible to false or dangerous information. There’s plenty of disinformation available, as purported health practitioners and politicians promote false cures or question the value of vaccines.

We know the harm that outright lies, and obstructive behavior has disrupted our efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID. We also know that as healthcare marketers, we are entrusted with private health information of our patients and therefore, much greater discretion in our actions is required. Much like the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”), healthcare marketers must also adhere to ethical practices that contribute to the greater good.

So, where can we go for guidance, knowing that the ethics of a healthcare communicator should be more stringent than might be expected of other public relations and marketing professionals?

The Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development (SHSMD) provides healthcare marketers with invaluable guidance on topics such as marketing, digital engagement, communications, strategic planning, business development and ethics in communication. At the heart of the SHSMD Code of Professional Ethics and Conduct is a responsibility to serve our employers, providers, the community, payers, the media, and others with ethical and professional conduct. This means service that embraces truth, accuracy, integrity, fairness, respect, and good faith.

I won’t discuss each of the thirteen standards of conduct, but instead will point out a few that are most relevant to our everyday activities as healthcare marketing professionals.

Code of Conduct #1 is one we know well:  Respect the rights, including those of privacy and confidentiality, of patients and others served by the profession. We are all well versed in HIPPA regulations and safeguard patient confidentiality as if it is job one. We make certain we have appropriate patient sign-off from a privacy perspective. Ads that talk anonymously about patients ensure the patient is not traceable back in any way. Further, patient lists should never be used by third parties.

Code of Conduct #2 reads: Conduct his/her professional life in accordance with the public’s best interests and deal in a fair and honest manner with the public, present and past employers and clients, employees, and fellow practitioners. I find it particularly meaningful that this specifically calls out one’s duty to their present employer. As their agent, we must safeguard their well-being and reputation in the same way we must care for our patients. I recall the advice of a former boss as “Treat our money as if it was your own.”

Code of Conduct #4 is especially relevant in these times where medical disinformation, is prevalent. It is:Adhere to the highest standards of truth and accuracy. The professional shall never intentionally use false or misleading information. Inaccurate information inadvertently disseminated shall be corrected immediately. The professional shall never knowingly plagiarize the work of another individual or entity and shall give credit for ideas and words borrowed by others. The professional shall respect the copyright of others. As discussed in my previous blogs regarding COVID, we must as communicators consistently describe the value of vaccines, discount fallacies, and correctly credit the valued words of medical experts that will undoubtedly result in more effective persuasion.

Code of Conduct #5 is a guidepost for honest portrayal of who you are and what your organization can deliver. The Code reads: Respect the vulnerability of those who seek healthcare services and never seek to sell services or influence consumer behavior through intimidation or fear, or through the promise of unrealistic results. Information must be presented without exaggeration and must not be presented in an incomplete manner or with misleading implications. We must avoid superlatives like “best,” “most effective,” and must not describe anything we cannot prove. We must never promise results that cannot be consistently delivered.

Code of Conduct #11 holds us accountable for our actions. It is:  Sever relations with any organization or individual requiring conduct contrary to the articles in this Code. Be wise in our relationships with agencies, vendors, and providers, lest we cross the line regarding any of the SHSMD Codes of Conduct. We must, then, simultaneously hold our vendors to these same standards.

In a nutshell, we owe it to ourselves to be scrupulous in our ethical obligations to our employers and our patients. When we exhibit professionalism in keeping with the overall degree of integrity expected of all healthcare personnel (“First, do no harm.”), we best demonstrate our professional competence.

James Shulkin, a member of WHPRMS since 1999, is the Chief Brand Officer, Healthcare at NOISE, Inc.

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