Ethics in Advertising

Sticks and Stones May Break Bones, but Words (and Websites) Risk Negative Health Outcomes, as Well as Erosion of Public Trust in the Profession

We’ve received several queries about physical therapists’ websites. Members of the public and physical therapists have expressed concerns about exaggerated, false, or unverifiable claims, as well as comparative language.

Common themes include promises of rapid, dramatic improvements that are likely false and unverifiable (“back pain will disappear in three sessions!”), and the use of unverifiable superlatives or comparative statements about service quality (“XYZ clinic has the very best physiotherapists in Canada!”).

Physical therapists are trusted healthcare professionals and can feel proud of the confidence that clients and the public repose in themselves and the profession.

That trust and confidence rests on perceptions of the professionalism and honesty of each individual physical therapist in BC, and it is up to each individual physical therapist to safeguard it. Registrants are asked to review Section 83 of the College Bylaws regarding advertising and marketing.

All physical therapists are responsible to ensure that their communications, including their marketing or advertising, adhere to College’s Bylaws (PDF), Standards of Practice (PDF), and Code of Ethical Conduct (PDF). When physical therapists or their clinics hire marketing experts to assist them with their websites, this rule still applies: physical therapists are expected to review and approve of all content before it is posted, to ensure it meets their professional obligations.

Did you know?

Advertising and marketing undertaken or authorized by physical therapists in BC must be:

  1. truthful
  2. accurate, and
  3. verifiable.

It must not:

  1. promote unnecessary physical therapy services;
  2. provide unsubstantiated claims or guarantees of successful results;
  3. make comparative statements about fees charged, service quality, health providers, and products, or endorse products for financial gain;
  4. challenge or adversely reflect on the skills of other providers or the services of other clinics or facilities; or
  5. offer patients incentives or other inducements for services.

These rules, which maintain public trust in physical therapists and in the profession as a whole, are set out at section 83 of the CPTBC Bylaws (PDF).

The College understands and respects physical therapists’ interest in communicating truthfully with the public about the benefits of physical therapy. Such communications may have the potential to inspire trust and confidence in individual physical therapists as well as in the profession. On the other hand, the College has the power to take enforcement action when advertising that includes exaggerated, false, and unverifiable claims comes to its attention. Such advertising has the potential to erode public trust and confidence in the profession generally and to do real harm to individual clients.

Promises of rapid, dramatic improvements in pain and mobility to prospective patients who have not yet been assessed are almost invariably false. It is impossible to know with certainty how an individual client will respond to treatment, or even to provide a reasonable prognosis until that client has been properly assessed. Some members of the public reflexively distrust such claims, the individuals who make them, and professions that tolerate messaging that may appear calculated to take advantage of vulnerable potential clients. Other members of the public, who may seek treatment on the basis of such claims, may become unnecessarily discouraged when the results they experience are not as advertised. They may consequently discontinue or comply poorly with treatment and management recommendations, become distrustful of physical therapists or healthcare professionals generally, and fail to seek out much-needed care, placing their health at risk.

In short, when it comes to improper advertising, words can hurt: they can result in actual harm to the very clients most in need of physical therapy, and undermine the positive reputation of the profession. Conversely, telling the truth can heal: prospective clients, the general public, and the profession as a whole all benefit when physical therapists provide truthful, accurate, verifiable information about how they can help.