Intended for healthcare professionals

Careers

Can I promote products online?

BMJ 2019; 366 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4547 (Published 09 July 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;366:l4547
  1. Abi Rimmer
  1. The BMJ

As a doctor using social media it can be difficult to know whether you can endorse commercial products or apps online. Abi Rimmer talks to three experts about what is and isn’t allowed

“Take care not to abuse trust”

Victoria Moore, standards policy officer for the General Medical Council, says, “The medical profession is held in high esteem by the public, who expect doctors to provide sound, honest advice. If you get involved in endorsements you must be careful never to abuse that trust, or the vulnerability of patients, for personal gain. Our guidance is clear that doctors must never allow an interest to affect the way they prescribe for, advise, treat, refer, or commission services for their patients. And they must be open and honest about any interests that could be seen to affect the care they deliver.

“You should be conscious of any affiliation that may be a real or perceived conflict. If there is ever any doubt, our advice is to act as though it is. Whether a conflict creates a serious concern will depend on the circumstances and what steps have been taken to mitigate the risks.

“Whether it’s a TV commercial or an Instagram post, you must make sure the information you publish is factual and can be checked. Advertising material, including social media content, should not exploit a patient’s lack of medical knowledge or trivialise the risks of interventions. The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency also offer important advice, which you should familiarise yourself with. Never lose sight of your duty to your patients and the public —make sure their trust is justified. Those who make the care of patients their first concern won’t let commercial interests interfere.”

“Look to your interests outside of medicine”

Ali Abdaal, year one foundation trainee, Cambridge, says, “As a YouTuber I’ve made my fair share of sponsored videos where I’m being paid to promote products. So far I’ve mostly promoted things like language learning apps, audiobook apps, and website building tools. These things have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doctor, and more to do with the fact that I enjoy using cool apps and building websites. To keep things above board, I always make sure that I disclose whenever there’s any kind of paid incentive behind my recommendations. This helps to build trust with the audience, and it complies with the Advertising Standards Authority and GMC recommendations.

“Things have got muddier and more complicated when I’ve been asked to recommend products like chemical supplements and physiotherapy aids. So far I’ve avoided taking any of these on. I feel that promoting these sorts of products with my doctor hat on is different to promoting something like an audiobook app. I’m not opposed to the idea, but I feel that the burden of evidence is far greater for promoting anything even vaguely related to medicine.

“Overall, I don’t see any problem with promoting products online, provided we’re upfront about declaring interests, but it’s worth thinking harder about it if we are promoting products that relate to our status as doctors.”

“It depends on the product”

Emma Smith, copy advice manager at the Committee of Advertising Practice, says, “You might already know that prescription only drugs can’t be advertised to the public. However, the UK Advertising Code also prohibits advertisers from using health professionals to endorse over the counter drugs and product ranges that include drugs. There is a similar prohibition applying to electronic cigarettes. This effectively means that you can’t promote medicines or electronic cigarettes in an advertising context.

“When it comes to ads for foods, drinks, and supplements, health claims that refer to the recommendation of a health professional are also against the rules. It is, therefore, quite difficult for a doctor to promote a product like this because the fact that you are a health professional could potentially imply health benefits.

“There is no outright prohibition on doctors promoting medical devices, cosmetics, and other consumer goods, but you still need to ensure that you don’t mislead your audience or otherwise break the rules. What rules apply depends on the product and what you say about it. If it’s not immediately obvious that you’re advertising, you’ll also need to make this explicitly clear upfront.

“Whether something is covered by the UK Advertising Code depends on a number of factors including where the content appears, your relationship to the product or company, whether you were paid (or given anything free), and the extent to which the company had editorial control over what you said. If you’re ever in doubt, you can contact our copy advice team by phone or through the ASA website (www.asa.org.uk) for free and fast advice.”

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