Risky Testimonials, Advertising Restrictions

Veterinarians need to be very careful before providing an endorsement or testimonial for a product or medicine. It has to be truthful, it has to give the context to avoid being misleading, and in many cases, it violates laws or even the practice act. This was a hot topic, which lead veterinarians at the GVMA to ask “should I ever give a vendor a testimonial?” And based on my answer, which is “only in the very limited circumstance, where it is truthful, not misleading or deceptive, used only in a non-commercial setting, and has proper context to avoid material omissions or false impressions…” I recieved some calls from pharmaceutical vendors asking about why I’d said that.  Luckily my presentation quoted the updated Board of Veterinary Medicine rules, and I discussed some of the ethical constraints under the AVMA code of ethics (in some of my presentations). I can only imagine the volume of calls to veterinary medical company legal departments after my CEs.

For me, it makes sense that there would be restrictions on testimonials in a commercial setting. This is not the same as a clinical/educational setting where peer reviewed studies and practical application of veterinary medicine may involve discussing the protocols and products a particular vet uses.

I try to remember that most boards of veterinary medicine and practice acts are designed to protect the public from unprincipled, dishonest, and incompetent veterinarians. The last thing they want is some client in the exam room saying “I know you recommend this, but I saw Dr. Sheila say that this other medication is better… you need to give me that one.” Now, out of context, without any knowledge of the case, the opinion of a vet without a VCP or exam of the animal is being injected into another professional’s practice of veterinary medicine. Even if it isn’t said, our reputation will now be judged and discussed based on whether we agree with another vet’s endorsement, rather than the quality of our application of medical judgement for the best prescription for that case.

Georgia Rule 700-8-01.b.3 states “It shall be unprofessional conduct for a licensee or registrant to guarantee a cure or to offer his name in a commercial setting in a testimonial as to virtues of proprietary remedies or foods.”

That’s pretty clear to me that  in Georgia, vets shouldn’t praise the quality or results of a remedy. Human medical practicioners have similar rules about avoiding even implications of a guaranteed outcome or endorsing a medication.

But even we weren’t in the State of Georgia, we’d have to be very careful about providing a testimonial. Once we provide it, we typically do not have future control on the testimonal’s use. What happens if the marketing department of the vendor takes only a part of our testimonial, out of context? What if it’s placed with other content that leaves a false impression, or creates a broader positive statement than we intended?  Unless we have final approval rights on the form, substance, and context of the the testimonial, my clinic veterinarians may be engaging in false, deceptive, or misleading statements in advertising.

The AVMA code of ethics, Section III, K  states that:

“Advertising by veterinarians is ethical when there are no false, deceptive, or misleading statements or claims. A false, deceptive, or misleading statement or claim is one which communicates false information or is intended, through a material omission, to leave a false impression.

Testimonials or endorsements are advertising, and they should comply with applicable law and guidelines, such as the Federal Trade Commission guide and regulations relating to testimonials, endorsements, and other forms of advertising.”

For clarity, the FTC prohibits false or misleading advertising with consumers, and can impose significant fines on parties that engage in this behavior. It might not only be a cause for the board to discipline us for unprofessional conduct, it has the potential  of the FTC to fine not only the veterinary medicine supplier, but the testimonial providing vet as well. I can’t evaluate how big that risk might be, but since ethically we can’t receive payment to endorse a particular vendor’s product, I’d say the risk isn’t worth the gain in most cases.

Now, if  one of our vets wants to stand up in a Continuing Education or clinical setting and talk about what they use and the results they’ve seen, or publish a learned article on the topic in a medical journal, or post a reply on a forum online that’s not public, then there may be some more room to ‘testify’ about a product. But if  that CE is sponsored by a vendor and they are taking orders at the door, that’s still a significant risk of it being interpreted as a commercial setting… to me. If it’s just vets and their colleagues talking about protocols, it may be perfectly acceptable. Context makes a world of difference.

Regardless of what we decide to do,  I recommend that vets in any practice make certain before they do that quote for their favorite vendor, the vets look at your practice act, rules, and the ethical code… and feel comfortable that they aren’t violating them in spirit or word.

That’s one way that we can all have better vet practices.

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