a creative agency that takes care of healthcare brands
Angelica Papanicolaou
18 Mar, 2021

When I think about the word ‘guidelines’, I’m instantly taken back to the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was upon the deck of the Black Pearl that Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the Governor of Port Royal, found herself negotiating with pirates. Refusing to take Miss Swann back to shore, Captain Barbossa famously stated that ‘the code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.’

Unlike pirate code, however, the Australian Health Practitioner Agency (Ahpra) guidelines are actual rules that must be met under National Law. Prosecution for non-compliance could result in a hefty fine.

All registered healthcare practitioners are on notice since Ahpra announced a nationwide audit of advertising compliance late last year. Marketers and agencies involved in advertising healthcare services should also sit up and take note.

Who is Ahpra?

Alongside the various national health practitioner boards (the National Boards), Ahpra oversees the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme and Health Practitioner Regulation National Law.

Ahpra and the National Boards regulate Australia’s health practitioners to keep the public safe from harm.

They set various standards that health practitioners must meet to maintain their registration and right to practise.

Which health professionals are affected by the Ahpra advertising guidelines?

Anyone registered with one of the following National Boards is legally bound by the advertising guidelines:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practice Board of Australia
  • Chinese Medicine Board of Australia
  • Chiropractic Board of Australia
  • Dental Board of Australia
  • Medical Board of Australia
  • Medical Radiation Practice Board of Australia
  • Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia
  • Occupational Therapy Board of Australia
  • Optometry Board of Australia
  • Osteopathy Board of Australia
  • Paramedicine Board of Australia
  • Pharmacy Board of Australia
  • Physiotherapy Board of Australia
  • Podiatry Board of Australia
  • Psychology Board of Australia.

Henceforth, the term ‘Ahpra’ also implies a reference to the National Boards.

What are the Ahpra advertising guidelines?

In a nutshell, the guidelines explain what you can and can’t do when it comes to healthcare advertising.

Advertising health services and treatments is an essential element of sharing important information with the public. It also has the potential to wield great influence on consumer decision-making – for better or for worse.

Ahpra’s intent, rightly so, is for advertisers to provide accurate information supported by high-quality evidence, without misleading the consumer. Like most healthcare practitioners and marketers, the regulator wants the public to be able to make well-informed choices about their healthcare.

To this end, Ahpra has compiled the must-read resource Guidelines for advertising a regulated health service (recently updated in December 2020).

Be warned that it is the registered health practitioner who is held ultimately accountable, even if the advertising content was developed on their behalf by a third-party.

As a marketing and communications agency specialising in healthcare and pharmaceutical advertising, Ahpra’s advertising guidelines is one of our ‘bibles’. Others include the Medicine Australia Code of Conduct and the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code.

Illustrative depiction of a person aboard the boat SS Advertiser negotiating their way through testimonials, unsubstantiated claims and a pirate to reach the treasure of Ahpra-compliance

Chart the right course to Ahpra compliance for your healthcare advertising

Make sure you understand Ahpra’s definition of ‘advertising’ – you might be surprised at what is included.

What do I need to know about the latest Ahpra guidelines?

In addition to a structure overhaul, Ahpra has provided further clarification in several areas.

Important information is more prominently located in the new document. Easy-to-follow flowcharts have also been added. These help advertisers decide whether acceptable evidence is required or if an online review counts as a testimonial.

I explore some of the key areas covered in the guidelines below. Alternatively, feel free to get in touch for a more comprehensive discussion about your healthcare advertising and the Ahpra guidelines.

Acceptable evidence to back up a claim

Advertising claims about the effectiveness of a regulated health service need to be supported by credible evidence. The guidelines contain new content describing the type of evidence that is acceptable.

What counts as acceptable evidence?

This should feel familiar if you have a scientific or academic background. Ahpra directs advertisers to use robust evidence such as systematic studies in peer-reviewed publications.

Acceptable evidence ranks highly against these six factors:

  1. Source of evidence is reliable and can be accessed by the public
  2. Evidence is relevant
  3. Other relevant evidence has been considered and included
  4. An appropriate study design has been used and supports the claim
  5. Research methods and quality of evidence is appropriate
  6. Evidence is strong and meaningfully supports the claim.

Those that fail to meet the acceptable standard include:

  1. Studies involving no human subjects
  2. Before and after studies with few or no controls
  3. Self-assessment studies
  4. Anecdotal evidence based on observations in practice
  5. Outcome studies or audits, unless bias or other factors that may influence the results are carefully controlled
  6. Studies that are not applicable to the target population.

Correctly using your title and registration

Ahpra has provided more detail around the use of titles and claims about registration, competence and qualifications.

It remains illegal to misuse a protected title. Unsurprisingly, you can’t call yourself a dentist if you aren’t registered as one in Australia.

Ahpra recognises that the word ‘specialist’ (and variations thereof such as ‘specialises in’, ‘specialty’ and ‘specialised’) can mislead consumers and must be used carefully.

For example, saying ‘Dr Lopez (Chiropractor) is a specialist in paediatric chiropractic care,’ is easily interpreted as Dr Lopez holding specialist registration in paediatric chiropractic care.

This isn’t the case as chiropractors currently do not have agreed and accredited pathways for specialisation. In fact, it’s only medical professionals, dentists and podiatrists who have recognised specialist registration categories.

Ahpra recommends using language like ‘substantial experience’ or ‘working primarily in’ to avoid any confusion.

Talk about your qualifications, memberships and experience

Providing details about a practitioner’s education, training and experience can assist consumers in making an informed decision.

It’s also perfectly acceptable to advertise postgraduate qualifications, memberships and specific work experience on the proviso you don’t infer that you have more qualifications, skill or experience than is the case.

Can I call myself a doctor?

While the title of ‘Doctor’ isn’t protected, Ahpra emphasises that most people think of doctors as medical practitioners. If you use the title ‘Dr’ but aren’t registered with the Medical Board of Australia, make sure your profession is immediately clear.

The guidelines use this example: Dr Lee (Osteopath).


The prevalent use of testimonials in healthcare advertising is a particularly contentious issue.

Many regulated health services use testimonials in their advertising in a way that does not comply with Ahpra’s guidelines.

Specifically, testimonials of a clinical nature are not acceptable on any platform under your control. This includes purported testimonials and (although it seems obvious) fake testimonials.

Yet, that’s not to say all testimonials are out. The guidelines permit sharing patient experiences of the non-clinical aspects of a service (e.g. friendly reception staff).

Online patient reviews are allowed on websites, forums and social media platforms outside your control. However, you shouldn’t reference these in your advertising if they mention any clinical aspects.

Gifts, discounts or inducements

Like testimonials, this is another area that generates a lot of controversy – can you or can’t you? Again, it depends.

Any offer of a gift, discount or inducement must be accompanied by the terms and conditions in clear, easy-to-understand language that is not misleading.

Ahpra specifically uses the word ‘free’ as an example. Public expectation of a ‘free offer’ is that it is absolutely free and not recovered from a third party (e.g. Medicare) or by raising your fees elsewhere.

Retro vintage illustration of girl shouting out loud 'free' to advertise an offer

Is your offer really free?

You’ll also want to take great care that your offer does not encourage the indiscriminate or unnecessary use of a regulated health service. This is particularly the case if the value of your offer distorts the consumer’s perception of the cost and risk of the treatment.

Here is Ahpra’s example of a potential breach:

‘Each time you attend for cosmetic injections at our practice you go into the draw to win a luxury car. The more times you attend the more entries you get and the more chances you have to win!’

When it comes to healthcare advertising, keep your patients’ best interests top of mind to increase engagement and reduce the risk of non-compliance with Ahpra’s guidelines.

Feeling out of your depth?

With so much at stake, finding the right balance between Ahpra compliance and effective healthcare advertising can be tricky.

But it needn’t be. If you want to make sure your healthcare advertising is shipshape and ready to sail, give us a hoy!

Download Ahpra’s Guidelines for advertising a regulated health service here.

Disclaimer: Although our writers all have life science degrees (including medicine and veterinary science) and apply Ahpra’s advertising guidelines on a daily basis, we are not lawyers and cannot provide specific legal advice regarding compliance with advertising under the National Law. Note too that Ahpra and the National Boards cannot advise whether specific instances of advertising are legally compliant – you’ll need to consult a legal adviser or indemnity insurer instead. 

Angelica Papanicolaou, Junior Writer at Wellmark. Connect with me on LinkedIn