Advertisers of regulated health services (both individuals and organisations) must not advertise health benefits of their services when there is not acceptable evidence that these benefits can be achieved.
Under the National Law, the evidence needed for therapeutic claims in advertising and the evidence to be used in clinical decision-making about particular treatments is different. A higher standard of evidence is required to support claims made in advertising regulated health services. This is because in advertising, a statement may be easily misinterpreted or taken out of context and then become misleading. It is the overall impression created by the advertising that will be judged and, as such, it is possible for statements that are technically true to be misleading or deceptive in certain contexts.
The National Law bans advertising that creates an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment. The claims of beneficial treatment can range from unsubstantiated scientific claims through to unsubstantiated miracle cures.
In considering whether there is acceptable evidence to make a claim in advertising, you cannot ignore evidence of a higher level (for example, evidence from a single study would not be acceptable evidence if it is contradicted by a systematic review). Advertising claims that are contrary to high-level evidence are unacceptable.
You should make sure that any information you publish about your services is factual and verifiable.
- You should only make justifiable claims about the quality or outcomes of your services in any information you provide to patients.
- You should not make claims either directly to clients or in advertising or promotional materials about the efficacy of treatment or services you provide if those claims cannot be substantiated with acceptable evidence.
- You must not use your possession of a particular qualification or membership to mislead or deceive clients or the public as to your competence in a field of practice or ability to provide treatment.
The science of advertising - what we mean by using ‘acceptable evidence’
There are many aspects that are taken into consideration when evidence is reviewed and each claim is assessed on its merits alongside the evidence presented to support it.
Relevant issues we consider when assessing whether there is acceptable evidence for therapeutic claims include:
- Is the evidence relied on objective and based on accepted principles of good research? Is the evidence from a reputable source? For example a peer-reviewed journal.
- Do the studies used provide clear evidence for the therapeutic claims made or are they one of a number of possible explanations for treatment outcomes?
- Have the results of the study been replicated? Results consistent across multiple studies, replicated on independent populations, are more likely to be sound.
- Has the evidence been contradicted by more objective, higher quality studies? This type of evidence is not acceptable.
To help practitioners, we have published some FAQ about advertising and evidence.
Both specific claims and the overall impression of advertising have potential to be misleading. In some cases we may identify a specific claim or claims that are concerning. In assessing whether advertising claims are misleading or deceptive or create an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment we will assess specific claims, and where relevant will also consider the advertising as a whole from the perspective of a member of the public.
The following types of studies will generally not be considered acceptable evidence for advertising claims:
- studies involving no human subjects
- before and after studies with little or no control or reference group
- self-assessment studies
- anecdotal evidence based on observations in practice
- outcome studies or audits, unless bias or other factors that may influence the results are carefully controlled, and/or
- studies that are not generalisable to the advertising audience.
The evidence base for clinical practice is constantly developing so it is important to make sure that the evidence you rely on is current.
Scientific information in advertising
Practitioners must take care to not mislead or create false impressions when using scientific information in advertising. Practitioners who include scientific information in advertising must ensure that the information is presented in a manner that is accurate, balanced and not misleading and use wording that is understood readily by the target audience.
The advertising must clearly identify the relevant researchers, sponsors and the academic publication in which the source scientific information or results appear, and be from a reputable (for example, peer-reviewed) and verifiable source.