Liberalising Health Advertising : Can we handle it?

Reported in The Star,

PORT DICKSON: Advertising guidelines for the healthcare sector will be further liberalised in order to promote medical tourism in this country, and to ensure that the targets set for the sector under the National Key Economic Areas will be achieved, Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said on Tuesday.

He said the guidelines would also help the country compete with its neighbours to become one of the healthcare hubs in the region.

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Many generations of Malaysian doctors have been bound by the clutches of rules that forbade them from advertising their services. Even privately owned practices are subjected to the same rules.

Times have changed and patients are becoming increasingly knowledgeable. The internet has liberalised medical knowledge and pried it away from the exclusive domain of healthcare professionals. With this, patients are already choosing their doctors carefully, looking into not only their qualifications and experience but their unofficial rankings in chat forums.

So does liberalising health advertising laws benefit the consumers in this instance?

If eventually laws governing health professionals are relaxed, there should be a mechanism in place to monitor the authenticity of claims. The floodgates will open, inundating the public with a slew of advertisements, one hoping to outdo the other. This vicious world of advertising will be fully unleashed on the healthcare industry. Hospitals and doctors alike will be clamouring to gain much needed publicity in an increasingly competitive healthcare industry.

Opening the door to healthcare professionals will only awaken another group of professionals that are similarly bound by such advertising laws, the legal profession. This profession will no doubt be forced into the same predicament and in fact, will act as a check and balance mechanism to counter irresponsible acts from healthcare professionals. This will drive litigation cases to a new high, forcing doctors to further insure themselves and in the process transferring these extra costs to patients.

Eventually the camaraderie among healthcare professionals will be eroded, on top of the added skirmishes with the legal profession, mixed with increasing confusion among the public.

So can we handle it?