Bad Medical Marketing gets Singapore doctor MOH warning

August 9, 2019

Trust me. You don’t want to receive a letter like that.

But this is what happens when your digital marketing agency inputs a SINGLE INCORRECT SETTING on Google or Facebook.

It’d be good if we can ignore marketing completely, or tell our marketer to play it extremely safe (AKA “accept horrible marketing results and end up wasting time/money”). Sadly, the modern world forces us to keep up with times to stay relevant.

As of 2017, there were 4,788 specialists with 1,693 (35%) in Private Practice. The number of licensed doctors also hit a record high of 13,006 in 2016, with there being even more today. Ask younger colleagues how long they’ve been waiting to get residency and you’d realize there’s now an oversupply.

Doctors are still one of the most respected and elite professions, but life is not so easy anymore. It gets harder when you consider how difficult it is to properly market a doctor.

Medical Marketing Is Sensitive

Unaware of how strict publicity regulations surrounding private clinics are, agencies often cause headaches despite having your best interests at heart. Just recall, it was you who told your marketer to study the PHMC Publicity Act, wasn’t it? But isn’t it more worrying how it’s the doctor teaching the marketer what to do for marketing?

In addition, all material you put out has to comply with SMC/SDC guidelines and Google, Facebook policies. These regulations are constantly updated and busy medical professionals lack time to study each new revision (doctors are busy enough taking endless exams and certifications). Take for instance the 2019 update to MOH’s publicity guidelines. Rather than clarify matters, it ended up bringing a host of new questions.

So what’s the best way to ensure SAFE PUBLICITY?

There are 3 COMMON MISTAKES that get clinics into trouble with the Ministry of Health. Avoid them to drastically reduce the chances of a MOH love letter.

#1 Google Ad Experts

“Wait. What? Advice from a Google marketing expert is BAD?”

Think about it. There are 2 factors here.

  1. Advertising
  2. Regulations

Would you hire a lawyer to do clinic marketing for you? No.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Google experts optimize for technical performance, without a deep understanding of how clinics run. A few technical “improvements” can cause ads to be written very differently. 2 highly dangerous techniques you want to avoid are “Keyword insertion” and “Dynamic ads”.

Without going into technicalities, both of them were created by Google to improve ad relevance by crafting them from what users type into the search box. This often ends up with ads like this:

Dr LimTTSH Knee Specialist  – Located at Katong i12
Call Dr Tan at 9111 4321
Cheapest Heart Stenting in Singapore
Visit our clinic at #99-01 Mt Elizabeth Novena

The incongruence, impersonation and general violations are caused by a mixture of predefined and dynamic variables. It might result in better technical performance but puts you into hot soup. NOT worth it.

However, these are the very things Google Experts and professional marketers will advise you to do! Be VERY careful about whose advice you take.

So the next time you get a call from a Google Expert or read a marketing sales email, think twice before getting lured in by the beautiful promises.

#2 Testimonials

The 2019 update to the PHMC Publicity Act brought about 1 major change that got every doctor talking.

I know this because 4 different doctors sent it to me the moment they received it. To be fair, our man on the inside tells us it’s something MOH has been discussing for the longest time. If you attended their doctor dialogue sessions, you’d also realize this to be one of the most frequently asked about topics.

To summarize, patient testimonials are now allowed on your website. Feel free to dynamically display your clinic’s official Google Reviews, though this very much acts as a double-edged sword.

Lasik journey

Apart from that, any form of testimonial cannot directly be used in your publicity materials. What about 3rd parties and bloggers then? This is where the grey area sits right now. I personally don’t recommend any of my clients to do shady things like sponsoring a treatment then telling the blogger to keep hush or fake a payment receipt. Doctors are a highly respected profession and should behave in a more ethical manner. But should a patient really love your service and write a glowing review, good job.

Nonetheless, to protect yourself from unwanted violations:

  1. Do NOT share anything laudatory on social media. From our experience, it’s mostly the front desk or counter staff who post, so remember to brief them about this.
  2. Do NOT link out from your website to testimonials or patient reviews. Your web developer should know this. In fact, to play safe, don’t link to anyone from your website.
  3. Ensure your marketer or Google Expert is NOT using the “review callout” feature on your Google Ads. That counts as testimonial marketing and can get you into trouble.

Still, testimonials and past work are POWERFUL and the #1 thing that convinces patients.

There are also ways to use patient testimonials that are completely within the scope of the law. How? The medical marketing methods are proprietary to Healthmark but we’d be happy to tell you over coffee. Your treat. 😀

#3 Package Pricing

Package Pricing

To start, PACKAGE PRICES ARE ALLOWED. Once again, it’s not something that’s overtly stated, and you’d do well to keep it that way.

The mistake many clinics make is in publicly displaying information that lets patients see an advantage in taking the package. Let’s use a quick example here:

PRICELISTSpine checkup - $200Knee checkup - $200Spine + Knee checkup - $320

The above violates regulations because having a combined checkup is clearly cheaper than choosing only 1. This can be seen as persuading the patient to take the combined checkup, which is very much frowned upon by the authorities.

What if we did this then?

PRICELISTSpine + Knee checkup - $320

Now, this suddenly becomes 100% compliant. There’s nothing else for patients to compare the price to and thus, you’re not seen as trying to get patients picking 1 option over another.

The other question then becomes, “are there restrictions on how I price packages?”

Singapore authorities generally let market forces dictate prices in the private sector. However, this is completely subject to the discretion of MOH and you can be asked to explain your prices if they seem abnormal.

I’m sure you’ve all seen “Complete Health Screening Package for $138” in packed clinics. But what happens if you bring the price down to $1? Or FREE? Such a low price might then be seen as soliciting for patients and get you into trouble.

In summary, feel free to create packages for your patients. However, refrain from giving them ala-carte prices as comparison points and always make sure your prices don’t stray too much from prevailing market rates.

Closing Notes

Finally, why is there so much more emphasis on adhering to MOH’s guidelines as compared to SMC/SDC? Most of you reading this will be doctors, so all I will say is this:

“Compare the reporting process required for each one”.

You probably know the answer now.

In any case, there are multiple ways to get past the restrictive regulations surrounding clinic and doctor marketing. The smartest option is to work with a marketing guru who is also well-versed in regulations.

By Nate Wang

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