Healthcare marketing online: regulations, opportunities and content for marketing in the health sector

Healthcare marketing online is a very promising market sector in Italy. Between the expectations of professionals and the limits set by law, the help of an expert is the most “healthy” choice for helping professionals navigate this area.    

Health marketing is not only a technical issue, but it’s also a very delicate issue because it involves both moral and legal issues. In addition, it is still the subject of debate among experts in the sector, communication service providers, and Italian legislators at the national level. In essence, health marketing requires an awareness not only of the technical issues, but also of the ethical and regulatory issues that come into play. These should all be front and center when building and implementing your strategy. As we look closer at this issue, let’s start with a definition.

 

A simple definition for a complex theme

The term “health marketing or health advertising” refers to an approach that applies the principles and theories of traditional marketing to create a strategy based as much as possible on statistical evidence and scientific data, aimed at preventing and protecting citizens and promoting therapies and products of health care companies.

An interesting example is the type of advertising often disseminated by non-profit organizations or national health systems to raise awareness on a specific prevention issue or practice. The purpose of this type of communication is obviously not the profit or return on investment, but only the health of citizens, who are encouraged to adopt or not to adopt certain behaviors and are made aware of certain services or treatments that may benefit them.

Health marketing can be done by government organizations, non-profits, or private companies, such as clinics, nursing homes, professional practitioners, etc.. Within this third category, there are two further subcategories: B2B health marketing and B2C health marketing.

 

Health professionals 

B2B health marketing is aimed at experts in the field, from individual professionals in their own practice to more complex organizations such as entire clinics. It is not only about the products that professionals can buy (machinery, equipment, tools, digital solutions, etc.), but also about communication services that can help professionals position themselves and manage their reputation among patients.

B2B health marketing is by no means a marginal market segment just because it addresses a niche of customers. By 2025, this segment is expected to reach a total value of more than $530 billion. This is considerable growth, considering that just two years ago, it was worth just over $200 billion. It is also an interesting market in the field of creativity.

Here, organizations also need creative ways to present products and services in order to bring in more customers. There are a variety of campaigns and channels that have been used successfully. For example, the campaign from HIMSS, the non-profit that strategically employs technology and management systems to improve healthcare.

In order to more effectively disseminate its educational messages, HIMSS decided to use its podcast to distribute relevant content such as expert interviews or analysis of major industry trends to professionals in the field. The feedback on using this new communication channel was not only positive, but it also achieved better results than other more traditional approaches.

 

B2C healthcare marketing online: between regulation and opportunity  

Ultimately, B2B health marketing aims to sell a product or service to a professional. Instead, health marketing that targets citizens is much more problematic. First of all, it’s because this segment involves the health of individuals. Secondly, health marketing, by its very nature, presents a considerable difference in information between those who make it and those who receive it. Here, the target audience are not experts, and the information presented may not be impartial.

In addition, because the target may require information about very specific topics, the space for freedom of choice is very limited. For all of these reasons, health marketing is subject to regulation. And just because regulations exist, it doesn’t mean that operators understand how to operate within them. 

 

Healthcare marketing online: the impact of regulation 

In Italy, the most recent intervention in the field was the 2019 Budget Law, or “DEF”, which prohibited private health care facilities, members of the health profession and companies operating in the dental sector from publishing informational communications with suggestive and promotional content. The regulation adds that such communications may only contain the information provided for by Decree Law No. 223 of 2006 (the Bersani law), citing the need to protect patients and their right to accurate health information.  

As a result, health communications must contain: the titles and professional specializations of doctors, the characteristics of the service offered, and the cost of the services. This must be done in a way that is truthful and transparent and that allows individuals to make a conscious choice while exercising their rights and comparing the available services offered. 

The reference to the Bersani law, then, should implicitly also imply the permanence of another law relating to marketing, namely, the Decree of the President of the Republic number 137 of 2012, which concerns the regulation of professional systems.

According to this rule, the informative marketing or advertising concerning the activity of regulated professions by private individuals must contain: information on their area of specialty and on what is being proposed to the potential user and a description thereof, and the fees requested.

 

Is health advertising in Italy prohibited?

If this is the regulatory framework of reference, where is the short circuit that risks putting professionals in difficulty?

As always, the devil is in the details. The misleading detail, in this case, is the fact that the current legislation considers advertising in the health sector by professionals and private clinics to be legal. On the other hand, however, it is the DEF itself that establishes that information communications cannot be promotional or suggestive. But how is it possible that there may be informative advertising that is completely devoid of promotional messages?

To avoid falling into this paradox, it must be assumed that the legislator considers information advertising (as defined in article 2 of the Bersani Law) and information communication, which must not be promotional in nature, to be conceptually different. What is the solution to this short circuit? Unfortunately, there is no answer, since there is a lack of measures that clearly outline this.

Despite these doubts, however, it is possible to identify some elements of the advertising campaign that can be considered “defensible” and therefore appear acceptable in the light of the legislation. The first element is the description of the treatment being promoted. The condition, of course, is that the description must be based on true and comprehensible information, so as to facilitate an informed choice by the consumer. In response, marketing professionals must be able to combine the need for brevity typical of advertising with the obligation to adequately represent the treatment.

The second element that communication must fulfil is to make sure that the information is scientifically correct. This means that it is unlikely that a communication will, for example, promise unsafe results or foresee the use of photographs and data related to before and after processing, since such a comparison could generate a certain expectation of results, thus making the communication suggestive and devoid of informative value. In other words, unlawful.

The third element that must be present is a communicative and visual element relevant to the treatment. This means that everything that is in the communication must have the sole purpose of making people understand the characteristics of the healthcare service offered. Therefore, pleasant images, which in some way serve to prepare the consumer well, could constitute a violation of the provisions of the DEF. From this point of view, it is particularly useful to have a prior assessment that provides clear and secure guidance to creatives and marketers so that their activity takes into account the guidelines provided by the relevant case law and the decisions of the AGCM.

Finally, the fourth element envisaged for a health communication is, of course, price. Since price is often one of the most decisive elements for patients, of the four, it is also the most delicate. In fact, it’s necessary that the financial indications present within health communication are not the central element of the communication itself, since the focus must remain on the service offered and its characteristics.

In addition, pricing must be indicated in such a way that there is no confusion between the cost and the treatment being proposed. This includes campaigns, for example, where price is indicated for services that are described generically or where it is communicated using the expressions “until …” or “from …”

A separate theme is that of discounts. For example, it is not possible to promise discounts as a result of certain behaviors, such as booking more visits or “taking” other patients with you.

 

Healthcare marketing online in Italy

Although the reform has opened many questions that are still waiting to be resolved, the answer is certainly yes. However, it is essential to get advice from an expert in the field, not only for the content but also for the form. It is no longer sufficient to use traditional communication. Instead, organizations must make use of several different channels to which specific roles should be assigned.

After all, it is now certain that digitization has radically changed the patient and their relationship with doctors. In fact, we often speak of “patient 4.0” as a patient who is increasingly prepared, who uses the internet for self-diagnosis, and who uses social platforms to get the information he or she needs.

Needless to say, this represents a considerable opportunity for health marketers by leveraging the new solutions that digital transformation has made available. Therefore, every healthcare facility, whether small or large, public or private, must begin to develop a marketing strategy that is guided by clear and precise objectives.