Letters to the Editor
ADVERTISEMENTS AND PROMOTIONS IN THE PROFESSIONS
A workshop on the code of ethics and conduct of various professions in relation to advertisements and promotions was organised by the SMA for Inter-Professional Presidents’ Group (IPPG) and held on 11 October 1997 at the Traders Hotel. Representatives from the Institute of Certified Public Accountants (ICPAS), Institute of Engineers (IES), Law Society of Singapore (LS), Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA), Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers (SISV) and Singapore Medical Association (SMA) gave presentations on their respective Ethical Codes.
Professions differ from commercial trades and enterprises in that the activities of their members are governed by codes of professional and legislation which lay down the ground rules of ethical and professional behaviour. A professional who contravenes the ethical code is liable to censure from his professional organisation or disciplinary action by the regulatory board for more serious breaches. Advertising and soliciting are considered contrary to the fundamental principles of ethical behaviour and are prohibited by all the 6 professional bodies. Such activities undermine the credibility, dignity and image of the professionals and bring their members into disrepute in the eyes of the public. Advertising is defined as the promotion to the public of the skills or services provided by a professional or a firm with a view to procuring business, while soliciting involves the approaching of potential clients for the purpose of offering professional services.
Publicity, on the other hand, aims to provide objective factual and accurate information without claims of superiority over others through direct or indirect comparison and is permitted subject to certain guidelines. In some instances, publicity is even required by law in the form of petitions or notices as in the case of accountants acting in the capacity of trustee, liquidator or receiver. The type of information which can be publicised in business cards, directories and brochures varies for different professions but in general, only basic details like names of practitioners, professional qualifications, practice address, telecommunication numbers and services provided are allowed. Whereas doctors can state their principal area of practice or speciality, lawyers and accountants are not permitted to do so. Professionals involved in the building industry like engineers, architects and surveyors may have their company names listed on project signboard and sales brochures of projects they are involved in. However, they are not allowed to place congratulatory messages in newspapers or endorse any project.
Advertisements in the lay press are not permitted for all professions except the medical profession which allows healthcare establishments to place newspaper advertisements pertaining to their commencement of operation or change of address provided that they do not appear more than once every 6 months. This provision under the Advertising Guidelines of the Private Hospitals and Medical Clinics Regulations (May 97) was made against the background of increasing corporatisation and regionalisation of Singapore’s healthcare industry. With regard to publicity on the internet, different policies exist among professional bodies. Healthcare establishments and law firms are allowed to place web pages on the Internet. IES and SIA and SISV currently do not allow their members to place Internet advertisements while ICPAS does not have any provision in its professional code for this.
Except for architects and doctors, non-professionals in the respective fields are not allowed to own shares in professional practices. Architects are allowed to incorporate companies. Although non-professionals can legally own shares, the 30 companies which have been formed did not have owners who are not architects or engineers. Non-doctors can own medical clinics and hospitals under the MAAU regulations and a healthcare group was even allowed to be listed in the stock exchange.
The issue of para-professionals and laymen posing as accreditated professionals was also discussed. This appeared to be a concern across the various professions and different approaches were discussed including legal measures.
The workshop ended wth a discussion on the practice of businesses giving discounts on products and services, a common marketing strategy. While it is permissible to negotiate professional fees with clients, all professional bodies were against the idea of offering discounts upfront to potential clients as an inducement to attract more business because it is considered ignominious and it lowers the standing of professionals. On the issue of the medical profession offering discounts, the non-medical professionals unanimously agreed that as patients, their trust and confidence in the professional integrity of a doctor will be undermined if he is allowed in a discount scheme for his patients.
Dr AU KAH KAY