Misusing the Term “Doctor” in New Zealand Advertising
Earlier this year, I saw an infomercial on TV for “Dr Ho’s decompression belt”. This was only a few days after I’d encountered this post on Science-Based Medicine, which mentioned “decompression therapy” in a post entitled “Chiropractic Gimmickry”, so my alarm bells were ringing and I wrote down as much detail about the ad I could in one of my pocket notebooks.
Later, when I was able to look the product up online, it seemed that the only official claims made of it were related to pain relief. As far as I could tell, that seemed consistent with the evidence, so I decided not to pursue that avenue. However, I did find that so-called “Dr Ho” is not a medical doctor, but instead a “Doctor of Chiropractic and Acupuncture”.
For quite some time now, I’ve had a link in my bookmarks to an article published in 2008 in the New Zealand Medical Journal entitled Use of inappropriate titles by New Zealand practitioners of acupuncture, chiropractic, and osteopathy, and this situation reminded me very strongly of that article. To sum it up, “Doctor” is not a protected term in New Zealand, but there are laws that prevent it from being used in such a way as to imply that a person is a medical doctor when, in fact, they are not. That study outlines the law and shows roughly how common such misrepresentation appears to be (spoiler: very common). The law in question is in the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003.
In response to this, I wrote in to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority), asking if anyone there could clarify for me when it is and isn’t appropriate to use the term “Doctor” in advertising. I’ve inserted this original message at the bottom of this post.
After about a month and a half, during which I’d received a couple of notifications to let me know that they were looking into it, I received an email to let me know that the matter has been settled. About a week after that, I was sent this ruling.
It seems that the people responsible for the advertisement have altered it to clarify that Dr Ho is a chiropractor, and not an MD as was previously implied. I’m sure the distinction will be lost on most viewers, but I’m happy to consider this a victory. Even though ads tend to have short lifetimes, the fact that a precedent has been set makes me optimistic.
I would encourage other people living in New Zealand (and elsewhere, of course, but the law may differ in other countries) to make similar complaints when they observe this behaviour. If you do so, it would probably be useful to refer to this complaint and, if appropriate, the relevant provisions listed in the ruling:
Principles 2 and 3, and Part B2 Requirement 3 of the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code.
Here’s the original email I sent:
To whom it may concern,
I saw an infomercial on TV last Sunday evening (19/08/2012, around 7:30-7:45 on Prime) for “Dr. Ho’s decompression belt”. This advertisement raised my suspicions as, a couple of days earlier, I’d read an article on the highly reputable website Science-Based Medicine that described “decompression therapy” as something which is commonly recommended by chiropractors for dubious reasons.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, the only claims made for this product (that it can relieve back pain) don’t seem illegitimate, and although I’ve found numerous references to the product having been “clinically tested” and “scientifically proven” without any corroborating references I’m not sure if official promotions have made such claims. However, in my search I discovered that “Dr. Ho”, as he described himself in the infomercial where he authoritatively promoted the product, is not a medical doctor. Instead, he is a “Doctor of Chiropractic and Acupuncture”.
The Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 states that ”a person may only use names, words, titles, initials, abbreviations, or descriptions stating or implying that the person is a health practitioner of a particular kind if the person is registered, and is qualified to be registered, as a health practitioner of that kind”. I was under the impression, from the use of the term “Doctor” in this advertisement, that “Dr. Ho” was a licensed medical doctor and therefore actually had the authority with which he promoted his product.
My conclusion that this use of the term “Doctor” can be seen as misleading, and therefore violate the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003, when used in such a context by non-medical doctors is corroborated by this article from the New Zealand Medical Journal.
I’d very much appreciate it if someone with authority on the matter could clarify for me just what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to referring to oneself as “Doctor” in a medical context within advertising. Can such behaviour be considered a breach of advertising standards, or is it considered acceptable? If it is considered acceptable, is there a list of qualifications which allow one to call themselves “Doctor”, or would no qualifications be necessary?
Thank you in advance,
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