Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Medical Council of India, doctors and advertising



The Times of India recently reported that the Maharashtra Medical Council is taking action against doctors for advertising their skills.

Whether or not to allow doctor to advertise has been a thorny issue for many years – not only in India but in the US as well . The traditional approach has been that doctors are professionals , and that advertising is below their dignity because they're not businessman. The belief used to be that there was no need for good doctors to advertise, as patients would come to them because of their reputation.

However, we need to acknowledge that times have changed , and that we need to change with them. The purpose of advertising is not merely to flaunt the doctor's skills or to solicit patients - it's a very efficient mechanism of allowing patients to know what special skills doctors can offer ; which specialist are available;  where they are available ; and how much they charge for their services. This is important information , which allows patients to select the right doctor for themselves. This is especially true in a democracy which is a capitalistic society , because patients have the freedom to choose . Patients are no longer passive recipients of medical care - they have become active consumers , who have the right to know what choices are available to them. By depriving them of this right , the Medical Council is actually doing them a disservice.

This does not mean that doctors should be given a free hand and be allowed to advertise at will. Some of the advertisements actually make me cringe , when I see how inaccurate and unreliable they are. Not only do they misguide patients, they also demean the dignity of the medical profession. However, that's no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater . It's possible to find a middle path which creates a win-win situation for doctors and for patients.

The Medical Council can treat this as an opportunity, so that they can project themselves not just as a body which is responsible for governing the medical profession , but one which is enlightened enough to put patients first ! One way of doing this is by ensuring that the information which patients want is easily available to them - and the best of doing this is going online. Thus the Medical Council website should become the first website for patients to visit, whenever they have any questions about any medical problems.

If the Medical Council site provided Information Therapy , patients would then be able to make much better informed decisions. Not only could they learn about more about their medical problem , the Medical Council would also provide a list of all the registered bonafide doctors , who are qualified to provide care about their illness.

Doctors would be allowed to provide information about their services on the website – and because it's an official site, the information can be regulated and controlled . There would be standard guidelines which everyone would need to follow , to make sure there was a level playing field . This would be a much more ethical and transparent way of making sure that everyone's interests are adequately met.

Not only would patients be happy, because they would have all the information they require in one place, but good doctors would be happy as well , because they could refer their patients to this website .

By not allowing doctors to advertise at all , the Medical Council is doing a disservice , not only to patients, but to doctors as well. By preventing patients from getting access to information about specialized services , patients are left in the dark ,and are forced to rely on a family physician to refer them to the right doctor. Sadly, as we all know, doctors will often not refer patients to the best specialist, for extraneous reasons.

The Council is also doing a disservice to the thousands of junior doctors who are starting practice . Banning advertising is very good for senior doctors like me , who have a well-established practice, and lots of patients. It's easy for me to get more patients, thanks to word of mouth. But what about the young doctor who is just starting practice ? How is he going to be able to get patients unless he has access to a platform which will let patients know about his special skills ? Preventing advertising actually encourages kickbacks and commissions , because it prevent doctors from reaching out to patients directly. Doctors are then forced to incentivize middlemen to refer patients to them – and this will make the practice of giving cuts even more entrenched.

While it's true that advertising  can be misleading, and can allow bad doctors to prey on helpless patients., if advertising is done properly, it can actually help to cut down healthcare costs . Doctors will be forced to be open and transparent - and in a competitive marketplace , patients will be able to know exactly what the fair price for a particular service is, so they know exactly how much they should be paying .

This is a great opportunity for the Medical Council to reinvent itself , and to keep up with the times , so that they can be of service not only to the medical profession , but to patients and society at large . The Medical Council can prove that the medical profession puts patients first , by providing a platform which all doctors and patients can use as a trusted source of information .

By taking this leadership role, the Medical Council can help to position India as a medical powerhouse of the world !
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