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Important guidelines for your medical practice website

When your medical office establishes a website, be sure to set some boundaries and limits for individuals using that website, and give careful attention to the individuals referenced at the site.

To set boundaries for individuals using the site, you should have a terms-of-use policy available on the website which includes disclaimers about the purpose of the site and what users can and can’t do on the site or expect from the site.

For example, according to health care Internet technology (IT) lawyer Lisa W. Clark, of Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia, such disclaimers should include notice to users of the following:

  • Information on the site or social media platform presented by the medical office doesn’t create a physician patient relationship or constitute medical advice for a specific patient;
  • Information provided does not replace the need for face-to-face consultation with a physician;
  • The medical office is not promoting or endorsing any product or service mentioned on the site and doesn’t address the quality of any product or service; and
  • The medical office has no control over third party links to the medical office website.

Clark warns that a third party could link to your office’s website or make representations about the practice. You don’t want to be misleading visitors, so emphasize that the medical office has no control over third parties that link to the site, she says.

Consider adding a banner at the bottom or top of your website, advises Clark, to make certain essential disclaimers immediately prominent for all visitors to your site.

“If your website includes a patient portal in which the patient may communicate with you or the medical office with respect to treatment, billing or other matters, you should also consider whether specific terms of use are necessary,” she adds.

Quoting patients

Happy patients talking about how great your medical office is, how competent the providers are, and how wonderful and efficient the staff are can be great publicity for your medical office. But think twice about including those types of references formally on your website.

First, “medical and ethical issues are paramount because that’s a licensing issue,” explains Peter T. Berk, a Chicago lawyer at McDonald Hopkins. Your state’s licensing entities or other state laws addressing the medical profession may address or even prevent use of testimonials to promote a licensed medical professional.

“If you can get past the medical and licensing issues, the FTC [Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising] wants it to be clear that people who provide endorsements must disclose any interest they have in your medical office,” says Berk.

The FTC has guidelines on the use of testimonials and endorsements. The need to avoid misleading consumers is a primary concern. Not only the FTC but state laws as well often require that, like any advertisement, a testimonial is not misleading or deceptive. For example, the California Business Professions Code Section 651 prohibits use of a testimonial “that is likely to mislead or deceive because of a failure to disclose material facts.”

Berk warns that any testimonial must therefore disclose any interest the entity has in the service or product they are endorsing.

So, for example, if a staff member receives medical treatment from one of the physicians practicing in the medical office, that staff member can’t provide a testimonial on the practice’s website or on the Facebook or other social media platform without disclosing the fact that she or he also works for the medical office. The FTC looks at that as misleading, explains Berk.

If you do use testimonials, you also want to make sure they aren’t misleading about services and potential results. Be sure to note that because a particular patient had this result doesn’t mean others will too. If you fail to say that in connection with the testimonial, it can create misrepresentations that the FTC and state agencies will be concerned about, says Berk.

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