Many of you will have heard of the ongoing case of Nicholas Handol and his ongoing breach of the advertising code which has culminated in a hearing before the General Osteopathic Council Professional Conduct Committee. It is not appropriate for me to comment on this case. There has been wide discussion of the case and misunderstandings of GOsC and their relationship to the ASA. I thought it would be helpful to discuss the ASA and it’s relationship to Osteopaths.
Who are the ASA?
“The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent regulator of advertising across all media. We apply the advertising codes which are written by Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP).” www.asa.org.uk
The organisation is independent of the government and runs at no cost to the taxpayer. The Advertising Codes and ASA’s rulings have universal coverage across the advertising industry. Advertisers cannot opt out of them.
If an advertisement is judged to have broken the rules, it must be withdrawn or amended. If advertisers won’t adhere to the code then sanctions can be applied – bad publicity, referral to other bodies e.g. Ofcom or Trading Standards.
The aim of the ASA is to make all advertisements responsible because they state that this is “good for people, society and advertisers”.
How does this apply to osteopaths?
Most osteopaths advertise and must therefore adhere to advertising codes. This includes all print advertising and online advertising including social media. The advertising code for health conditions has a clear list of conditions that can be referred to and those that can’t. The code applies to all health professionals. The ASA also issued advice with regard to the mention of treating children, babies and pregnant women in response to issues arising with osteopaths claims.
All the details are here: https://www.asa.org.uk/advice-online/health-osteopathy.html
What are the benefits of the ASA?
Having a regulator that oversees advertising protects the public from being misled by advertising. Osteopaths could make all sorts of claims about the efficacy of their treatment some of which would cause huge divisions within the profession. Without regulation of advertising there could be unsolicited treatment claims from many different professions which potentially could give false hope to the public and even put them at risk from unnecessary or potentially harmful treatment.
Restricting advertising enables osteopaths to uphold the reputation of the profession with r responsible advertising. Personally, I’m glad that advertisers can only make evidence based claims and the public are protected in this way.
What are the disadvantages of the ASA?
The main issue for all osteopaths is with the limitations of the list of conditions. There are many disputes about the evidence base used and the various ‘quirks’ of the list. Practitioners feel their scope of practice is being limited. The Advertising Code does not restrict what you can treat, only what you can claim you treat – there’s a big difference.
There are also limitations to the reach of the ASA as a regulator. It is not difficult to find professionals in osteopathy and other professions who are breaching the regulations. With the volume of advertising online and in print it becomes impossible for ASA to monitor everything, they are reliant on people raising complaints about advertisements.
What is the debate about ASA and GOsC?
Over the last couple of years there has been a campaign from one source against osteopaths making misleading claims on their website and in their advertising. A large number of complaints were sent to the GOsC. It is not the responsibility of GOsC to regulate advertising, so the complaints were screened and referred to the ASA. The complaints would only return to GOsC if advertising was not corrected.
Some osteopaths believe that if GOsC were to remove reference to the ASA from the Osteopathic Practice Standards then the problem would go away. However, as we have discussed all osteopaths, like anyone advertising, must adhere to the advertising code. Osteopaths have a responsibility to uphold the professional reputation of osteopathy and to behave in a socially responsible manner in both working and private life. Refusing to abide by ASA rules will bring the profession into disrepute and therefore any osteopath continuing to breach the rules will be investigated by GOsC for breach of the Osteopathic Practice Standards.
How should osteopaths respond?
First of all, make sure all your advertising adheres to the Advertising Code. The positive response if you believe the CAP Advertising Code is too restrictive is to work hard to produce the evidence necessary to expand that list of conditions. There are osteopaths already very proactive in this regard.
If you are worried about whether your advertising meets the standards you can submit your advertising to them for review – it’s free. CAP and ASA are very supportive of trying to help advertisers be responsible. https://www.asa.org.uk/advice-and-resources/bespoke-copy-advice.html