How doctors can market themselves without running afoul of non-advertising laws


Entering private practice requires one to stand out from the crowd in order to be the doctor of first choice for patients. — AMITA SEVELLARAJA

So you have decided to move into private practice.

Unlike government service where there is always an overflow of patients, in the private sector, you will have to compete for your patients.

But how are you going to persuade the public to consult you in preference to your colleagues?

At medical school, you were never taught about the economics of medicine nor marketing for patients.

In fact, talking about money in the medical field is abhorred.

“You go into medicine because you want to help people, not to make money” – that is society’s expectation of doctors.

After graduation, you work as a houseman for two years.

Then you train for an average of four to six more years to become a specialist.

After that, some will further train in a sub-speciality for several more years.

By the time you feel competent enough to move into private practice, you will probably be in your late 30s.

While concentrating on working hard to gain your clinical skills, you never thought of how to survive in private practice.

The thought that you might have to market yourself when you enter the private sector probably never even crossed your mind.

What the law says

Indeed, Item 4 of the Code of Professional Conduct 2019 adopted by the Malaysian Medical Council (MMC) states: “The medical profession in this country has long accepted the convention that doctors should refrain from self-advertisement.

“In the Council’s opinion, self-advertisement is not only incompatible with the principles, which should govern relations between members of a profession, but could be a source of danger to the public.

“A practitioner successful at achieving publicity may not be the most appropriate doctor for a patient to consult.

“In extreme cases, advertising may raise illusory hopes of a cure.”

The document then goes on to differentiate between “advertising and canvassing”, which are both not allowed, and “dissemination of information”, which is allowed under strict conditions.

I have always felt that the laws in our country often favour the businessmen who own private hospitals.

Although hospitals have their own guidelines on advertisements, the laws for them are more relaxed compared to those for medical practitioners.

If a hospital breaks the law, they just get fined.

If a medical practitioner breaks the law, he may get a suspension or his name may be struck off the MMC register.

Life in the private sector

Currently, there are more private hospitals than government hospitals in Malaysia, and more are coming up.

Private hospitals are competing with each other for patients.

For a private hospital to succeed, it first must have the necessary facilities to entice patients.

These include an elegant building, clean wards, good equipment for diagnostics, etc.

They also need competent doctors to work in the hospital.

Currently, most specialists are consultants to private hospitals and not employees.

They earn from their consultation fees and procedure/ surgical fees.

This has an advantage to both the hospital and the doctors.

The hospital is not burdened by the wages of the doctors, and the doctors earn based on how hard they are willing to work.

When you decide to join a private hospital, the management will give you the reassurance that they will help to promote you.

However, once they bring in a new specialist in your field, it will be the turn of the new specialist to receive special attention and promotion.

You will then be left to fend for yourself.

You will need to think of how to market yourself so that you can continue having a decent practice.

This is the reality of life in private practice.

Getting the word out

Being active on social media platforms like this sports medicine consultant who volunteers his time teaching Zumba classes to cancer survivors both online and in-person, naturally raises one’s profile among the public. — Assoc Prof Dr MOHD NAHAR AZMI MOHAMEDBeing active on social media platforms like this sports medicine consultant who volunteers his time teaching Zumba classes to cancer survivors both online and in-person, naturally raises one’s profile among the public. — Assoc Prof Dr MOHD NAHAR AZMI MOHAMED

If you want to buy a car, you search online to get information about models, prices, quality, etc, and read blogs on other peoples’ opinions about cars.

Then you make a decision as to which one to buy based on your budget.

If you have an illness and you want to find the best doctor to deal with your condition, what do you do?

You ask your relatives, friends, neighbours or your friendly general practitioner (GP) for recommendations, then you decide which doctor to see – you rely on word of mouth.

So, how then can you as a young specialist get the word out about your skills?

It would take a long time for the natural word-of-mouth process to work for you.

So, what are your choices in getting the word out about yourself?

Some time-tested methods include:

  • Visiting GPs who have clinics around your area and informing them about your skills, so that they will refer their relevant cases to you.
  • Giving talks to GPs to showcase your expertise.
  • Giving talks to the public through professional or civil associations and non-government organisations (NGOs), so that they indirectly get to know your skills and expertise.
  • Joining social media or civil groups and associations, and participating actively so that people know who you are.
Other newer methods used nowadays include:
> Webinars

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, webinars have become an increasingly common practice.

The reach is far and deep, and it is easy to do and cheap.

Many doctors have got onto this bandwagon and talk about their areas of expertise in webinars.

> Facebook Live

Some doctors have their own sessions on Facebook Live where they livestream talks on certain topics, thus, providing health information to the public, and hopefully, the impression that they are experts in that particular field.

> Youtube videos

Many doctors have their own Youtube channels where they post videos on their speciality.

The public will hopefully see these videos and reach out to them.

> Other social media platforms

These include Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn etc.

With an active presence on various social media platforms, doctors can increase their reach to the public.

> Business Network International

A friend of mine joined this group where professionals come together to help each other grow their businesses.

They meet every week to discuss each of their businesses and help one another in improving their networking, as well as assisting each other through cross-referrals.

As only one member per profession is allowed in a chapter, there will be no competition from your own colleagues.

This, I think, is an innovative method of marketing without the worry of being caught for advertising.

Do note that there is a membership fee though.

> Write a book

You could write a book on your area of speciality and this will portray you as an expert in your field.

> Publish papers in journals

While this might be a good indicator for fellow colleagues or academics who keep up to date with the latest research in medical journals, it is unlikely that members of the public will bother reading such publications.

In any case, most private doctors do not do research or publish journal articles as they are too busy working.

Marketing in social media

One last point to consider is whether actively marketing yourself on social media is considered a violation of the Medical Act 1971 (Act 50), which governs the practice of medical professionals.

I was told that strictly speaking, any form of social media marketing is indeed a violation of this Act.

However, the good news is that if no one complains, you can get away with it.

The only issue then is how effective is social media marketing?

Your competitor is probably also doing the same and might even be paying the social media platform to attract more traffic.

At the end of the day, the public still holds the power to decide which doctor they want to treat their illness.

Dr S. Selva is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and fertility specialist, in private practice in Melaka. This is the eighth article in a weekly series about surviving private practice in Malaysia. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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