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Here’s how regulation of health services advertising is affecting tech startups in the sector

   

We’ve been having some buzzing discussions on the TechMedicine WhatsApp group. Since its launch, it has managed to draw a diversity of talent ranging from doctors, students and public health specialists, to startup founders and award winning developers. A recent hot topic we had touched on advertising of health services and devices in Zimbabwe.

Most people are shocked by the realization that doctors are not allowed to advertise. This includes quite a number of the budding techpreneurs that I have had the privilege of working with.

Take a pause to think. Why is it that you have never seen your favorite practitioner on an advert just before the 8 o’clock news? Why the surgeon who performed the first ever successful surgical separation of conjoined twins, doesn’t have his own jingle on the radio that is aired every 15 minutes?

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Whether they may prefer to or not, is irrelevant. They are prohibited by law. This prohibition is not limited to doctors but extends to every health professional ranging from pharmacists to dietitians.

There are also restrictions on the advertising of medicines and medical devices. Those adverts on TV that we may be familiar with, are only for non-prescription over-the-counter drugs like pain killers, cough mixtures, and anti-acids. There are rigorous rules and regulations that give reason to why blood pressure drugs and ARVs are not advertised on TV even though they are life-saving drugs.

Startups seeking to venture into health care seem taken aback by this realization as advertising is an integral part of the success of any company. What’s the point of developing a solution you can’t inform the market about?

To put some of these fears and questions to rest, I ventured into a bit of investigative journalism and accosted the powers that be.

The Medical and Dental Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe is the governing body that was set up by law under the Health Professions Act (Chapter 27:19). It published a document called ‘Policy on Information to the Public’ that governs the kind of information doctors or an institution or group with which a doctor is associated can disseminate to the public.

For those who are developing health care solutions that will involve doctors offering their professional services such as telemedicine, hereĀ are some quotes from the policy that I think you may benefit from considering.

  1. “Advertising of professional services by a registered practitioner is deemed to be an act of unethical conduct as patients are vulnerable to misleading information. Equally, it is an act of improper conduct for a registered practitioner to associate themselves with an institution that advertises for patients.”
  2. “Information must contain truthful and balanced representations…you should not make direct comparisons between the quality of your services and the quality of services your colleagues provide.”
  3. “You must not put pressure on people to use a service, for example, by arousing ill-founded fear for their future health.”
  4. “The information must not unduly glamorize products and services or foster unrealistic expectations”
  5. “You must not provide information about your services by visiting, emailing or telephoning prospective patients, either in person or through an agent”
  6. “It is not appropriate to offer, manufacture, promote or distribute or discount coupons or gift certificates for medical treatments.”
  7. “It is not appropriate to offer medical treatments as prizes or gifts where this is done to promote a commercial service or for financial gain”

Judging from the list above, spam emailing or pop-up messages will not be allowed. Apart from these, there are also rules governing information put on websites, how entries in the Telephone Directory should appear and even how office signs should look! Violating these policies is a serious offense that may lead to a disciplinary hearing for the registered practitioner.

This intense scrutiny automatically leaves a host of tech-focused health services in a very grey area. Examples include Dial-aDoctor services, online diagnostics and remote patient care.

To date, Econet has been the one entity at the forefront of using these packages, with NetOne set to launch its own mobile health services later this year. However, these options will need to be cleared by the necessary authorities, something that requires a revision of legislation to reflect changes in technology.

The regulation may seem harsh but these policies are put in place to protect the public. False and misleading advertising that creates unrealistic expectations endangers members of the public.

Health tech entrepreneurs have to be wary

The MDPCZ does acknowledge the unprecedented opportunities that ICT advancements are providing to enable better sharing of health information. However, they prefer that information conveyed be the one that promotes the health of the population as opposed to promoting business.

This doesn’t mean that one cannot advertise nor does it mean that a healthcare start-up won’t flourish. It means that a different strategy is needed from the one that brands like Coke and Axe deodorant employ.

If again you may consider the earlier example of your favorite GP, even if they don’t seem to advertise, their offices always seem full of people requiring you to wait in line. This is because of the high demand that exists for health services and that the doctor offers good quality care.

Therefore as an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, we should set our focus on creating genuine products and services that help people knowing that healthcare is a big enough sky for every bird to soar in.


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