GoodTherapy | Truth in Advertising

Connor D. Jackson JD

Connor D. Jackson, a Chicago-based healthcare attorney, serves independent practices in many states. Visit his firm’s website here.

Mental health professionals now have more options than ever to promote themselves and their services thanks to digital marketing. And when trying to drum up new clients, it’s natural to focus on using the medium, message, and imagery to stand out from competitors. 

But federal law and state practice acts don’t favor creativity or persuasiveness in marketing. They require transparency and accuracy. We will discuss the limitations you must understand when creating your public profile.

The Legal Definition of “Advertising”

Advertising and marketing are restricted by law. Advertising is any communication that is intended to attract business. Advertising includes directories, author/speaker biographies, business cards and online map listings. It also includes social media posts every day. This term covers everything that potential clients can use in order to understand your services and qualifications.

Represent Credentials

The American Counseling Association (ACA), Code of EthicsAnd American Psychological Association’s Ethical PrinciplesMembers are prohibited from knowingly or implicitly misrepresenting qualifications. Counselors or psychologists cannot lie about their education, accreditation, membership status, or training. Supervisees and trainees should disclose their status.

Though state practice acts vary in precise terminology, they mirror the ACA’s and APA’s prohibitions against false titles or credentials. It’s never acceptable to fudge your qualifications or imply that you have a degree or professional credential that you lack.

In California, for example, unless you are a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), you should not advertise you can do “marriage consulting,” nor should you advertise you perform similar services to an LMFT.  California requires that unlicensed associates advertise that they are supervised entities and that they do not use degree credentials.   

It’s crucial to stay abreast of your state’s most current terminology. Take Colorado’s nomenclature for unlicensed psychotherapists that are listed in the state’s registry. Until recently, they were called “registered psychotherapists.”  However, to potential clients, the term sounded like full licensure. In response, Colorado recently changed the title to “unlicensed psychotherapist”and the older term was canceled. 

Washington offers a similar example of shifting terminology. In the early 2000s, Washington legislators created a “registered counselor” category as a catch-all for anyone who had not attained the master’s degree and thousands of clinical hours required for full licensure.

However, 2008 was a year after A Seattle Times exposéWashington dropped the category because it was exposing the public to poor care and sexual misconduct by untrained and poorly vetted Registered counselors. Today, anyone practicing therapy in Washington without full licensure must represent themselves as unlicensed and may not advertise or operate a “counseling” practice.

However, it can also cause problems if credentials are not properly stated. Licensees, for example, can cause problems. professionals should never advertise clinical therapy as “coaching” to evade state laws. It doesn’t work — the laws will still apply!

Representation of Products and Services

The Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCAAll claims must be truthful and not misleading, as required by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This applies to health advertising. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), will assess whether consumers are being made aware of implied or explicit claims and whether there is reliable scientific evidence supporting these claims. 

In evaluating the implied claims, the FTC looks to the “net impression.” The FTC asks, “Based on what the public generally understands the expressions in the advertisement to mean, is the ad truthful?”

To avoid confusion, FTC also requires clear information. The FTC considers misrepresentations, such as not disclosing whether clients receive testimonials payment, to be omissions. Disclosures and disclaimers need to be clearly and conspicuously made. They should not be hidden in fine print or obscured using technical language that is not easily understood by the average consumer.

False, misleading or deceptive claims are not only within the scope of federal law. Many State practice actsIt is against the law to make scientific claims without supporting them with reliable scientific evidence. 

To ensure compliance with federal and state laws 

  • Avoid overstatements and black-and white language that cannot easily be verified.
  • Avoid superlatives such as “best” or “most.”
  • Don’t offer “cures” and never promise that you can deliver a result, such as “zero anxiety” or “full recovery.”

Using Testimonials

Testimonials are a powerful and persuasive marketing tool that works across all industries. They are not recommended for mental health professionals.

American Psychological Association Ethics CodeThe Code of Ethics for the National Association of Social WorkersIt is against the law for therapists to solicit testimonials from clients or anyone who may be at risk of undue influence due their particular circumstances. American Counselors AssociationIt goes further and prohibits counselors soliciting testimonials of former clients.

A therapist must inform the client about all risks and obtain written consent before publishing a testimonial. Moreover, the therapist must avoid violating the client’s confidentiality in keeping with the Privacy Rule under HIPAAand state laws. 

As with all other advertising materials, the testimonial’s content must be truthful, including disclosing any compensation to the client. The content of the testimonial will likely be created by the therapist. 

Compliance: The Keys

Compliant marketing boils down ultimately to four efforts

  1. Recognize that advertising and marketing restrictions apply to many public-facing activities.
  2. Disclose your education, training, license, and practice specialty areas with precision and according to your state’s regulations. Do not suggest that you exaggerate your credentials.
  3. Be cautious when making claims about the results of your therapy or practice. Don’t make statements that are not supported by reliable data, such a peer-reviewed study.
  4. Be cautious when submitting testimonials from clients. You should obtain consent, protect privacy, and ensure that the content presents an honest picture.

Keep in mind that many marketing consultants and copywriters don’t understand the stringent guidelines surrounding healthcare. They may encourage you to get testimonials or use language that isn’t entirely truthful. It’s also likely that you can find examples of competitors who appear to ignore the guidelines. 

Just remember that it’s your practice at stake. Ultimately, it’s you (and no one else) who bears responsibility for your advertising. With truth and transparency behind you, you’ll likely stay on the right side of the law and build more trust with potential clients. Our advertising guidelines will help you stay legal. Advertising materials reviewServices 

Registries are an important part of any psychotherapist’s marketing strategy. GoodTherapy listings give you credibility and make it easier to find potential clients. Join GoodTherapy today to get all the perks that come with membership.

This article is intended for education purposes only and is not intended as specific legal advice. It does not create an attorney/client relationship between Jackson LLP Healthcare Attorneys or the reader. It should not be used to replace competent legal advice from a licensed attorney within your jurisdiction.




© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted Connor D. Jackson JD

The author of the preceding article wrote it entirely. GoodTherapy.org is not responsible for the opinions and views expressed. You can contact the author if you have any questions.

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