When I moved into medical copywriting from nursing, I knew I had a lot to learn. But I thought my days of hard ethical decisions were over. As an inpatient nurse, I dealt with moral conflicts and ethical injury. But as a marketing consultant and copywriter, I still lean on medical ethics in surprising ways. Here are 4 things that surprised me about the ethics of medical marketing.
I worked on a heart failure unit, then COVID step-down, and the Medical Intensive Care unit before being a full-time copywriter. In each of these settings, I dealt with daily ethical issues. Many revolved around patients and their families. It’s hard for families to understand the limits of modern medicine, and I was often given impossible tasks.
These impossible tasks typically involved torturing patients with medical interventions, despite a low probability of recovery.
In my first week off of orientation on our tele unit, I came into my 96-year-old patient’s room to find that he wasn’t breathing. One of our health techs threw me the backboard, and the charge nurse yelled “start pumpin’!”. Despite the whole team knowing that he had dementia and likely wouldn’t recover, we had to break his ribs and intubate him to try to keep him alive.
We didn’t talk about it in the hospital, but medical experts call this “moral injury” . It’s a term I learned from my Mom, who trains hospital chaplains. It’s a precursor for post-traumatic stress disorder, which can happen after a person’s trust and beliefs are threatened. In that scenario, I believed that the patient would have suffered less if we had let him die. And because I had to go against that belief, my trust in my practice was rocked.
When I made the switch to medical marketing and copywriting full-time, I thought my days of moral injury were over. And I’m so thankful to not be traumatized in my work anymore. But I still lean on my nursing ethics, my medical experiences, and my own moral code to be sure I’m helping people, not hurting them.
Copywriting is a powerful tool. It amplifies, spreads messages, and motivates people to take action. And I want to use those tools for good.
The first way I’ve learned to be ethical in my work is by making the right decisions from the start. And sometimes, this means passing on a client who isn’t a good fit for my own code of ethics.
1. Ethical Marketing Starts with Saying “No”
For me, the first step to feeling good about my work is choosing my clients carefully. This is a skill that I’ve learned the hard way — through working with clients that I realized I didn’t align with.
For newer copywriters, it’s easy to ignore your gut. You want the notch on your belt of another client, you want those first testimonials. And the fact that someone is in front of you, offering to pay you to write, can be very persuasive. All those motivations can make it tempting to ignore a funny feeling that tells you your client isn’t right for you.
Now, I know copywriters who have been directly misled by a client, and thankfully I’ve never had that experience. But I have learned that there are some areas of medicine that I’m just not super interested in promoting.
For example, some telehealth companies fragment care and try to maximize clinician productivity while minimizing pay. I’ve realized that I no longer want to work with clients who are re-packaging the same problems that already exist in medicine. That decision comes down to my own experiences as a clinician.
Another example of clients that I’m picky about is chiropractors. Now don’t get all up-in-arms, because I know a lot of people love their DCs, and many of them are great. But there are higher rates of scammy promotions and treatments within the chiropractic specialty than any other. Chiropractors have been flagged by CMS for providing medically unnecessary services . And while the field has made inroads in implementing evidence-based practices, many chiropractors still have a ways to go .
My own marketing ethics come down to my personal experiences, my medical knowledge, and my own learning as a nurse. But just because I don’t want to write for a niche or specialty, doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s all-bad. Which brings me to the second thing that surprised me about marketing morals. . .
2. Marketing Ethics Isn’t Black-and-White
When I started writing for companies, I really thought that marketing ethics were the same across the board. Don’t mislead people, don’t lie, and don’t be gross. Sounds easy right?
But the truth is that what one copywriter thinks is truth, another may think is misleading. A sales tactic that I find gross is the backbone of someone else’s business (lookin’ at you, network marketing).
There are some genuinely scammy marketers out there who don’t really care about what they’re selling as long as they hit their sales goals. But for the most part, I think we’re all just doing the best with what we know.
After doing this work for a few years, I’ve learned that marketing ethics is different for everyone. A treatment or method that I don’t want to write about might be appealing to another copywriter, and that’s okay. Marketing ethics, just like medical ethics, is all shades of gray. I know that many people won’t align with my morals, but I try to work with people who see the world in similar shades.
You’re probably wondering, “what does your version of marketing ethics look like?”, because you’re curious like that. Here’s what medical marketing ethics looks like for me:
- I use the latest research to consider a treatment or stance before I write about it. This helps me make sure I’m being truthful to the audience I’m writing for, rather than contributing to undue hype and misinformation.
- I don’t push people towards a sale that they don’t need or want. In my business, this looks like giving clients options that fit (and don’t exceed) their needs, or making changes to our plan if their budget changes.
- I want to be helpful, not contribute to the noise. People are inundated with messages to “buy now!” and “purchase before they’re gone!”. It might not sound very market-ey, but leading with value helps me know that I’m not just adding to the advertising noise we all go through daily.
Being truthful, acting with integrity, and leading with value are a few broad ways that I try to make the world better with my work rather, than worse. After all, I’m a nurse first, and I carry nursing philosophies with me along with marketing ones. As a clinician myself, I have my own moral compass that I follow in my business.
That leads me to the next thing that surprised me about medical marketing ethics. . .
3. I Don’t Agree with Some Clinicians, and That’s Okay
When I first started my business, I thought everyone knew more than me. And I still think a lot of people do. Hell, everyone knows more than me about something.
But the more experience I get, the more comfortable I am with leaning into my own judgment. The more I learn, the more I can trust my knowledge base, and come to conclusions for myself. And sometimes the ethical conclusions I arrive at are different from other clinicians, and that’s normal.
For example, I know many clinicians still swear by the keto diet. I think the market of content on keto is saturated, especially since it can be medically unnecessary and unhealthy. I don’t want to write about keto diets, but I know a lot of copywriters who do. Just because I don’t agree with a clinician doesn’t mean I think they’re wrong to market their work.
The knowledge and experiences I’ve had shape my beliefs, and I know we’re all living different lives. So it makes sense that we’d come to different conclusions sometimes. I write for clients whose views I agree with because I feel good doing it, and because I probably wouldn’t write well for a treatment I don’t believe in.
A core value in medical ethics is patient autonomy. That means that my work isn’t in making patients choose one treatment over another. It’s in researching, pointing out the pros and cons, and helping people make more informed decisions for themselves.
I’m always looking for more to learn, and my own beliefs change with time and information. That’s another thing that’s suprised me about this work. . .
4. My Marketing Moral Code is Always Shifting – And That’s a Good Thing
When I first started writing, I thought that my ethics would be the same month-to-month, and year-to-year. But over the last three years, I’ve gotten more stringent in my own moral marketing code. And several of my beliefs in medicine have changed, based on new evidence I’ve seen.
Even though I don’t practice clinically anymore, I still live, work, and breathe medicine. I love listening to podcasts about health and wellness, and I’m usually in the middle of a medical or marketing book. And the stuff I’ve learned has changed the way I think about the ethics of medical marketing.
Check out how content has shifted my medical marketing ethics in the last few years:
Maintenance Phase is a podcast that goes into the history of wellness trends and treatments, and the pitfalls of fatphobia in medicine. Fatphobic views were baked into my nursing school education and my experiences as an inpatient nurse. This podcast has taught me so much about the experiences of fat people, the murkiness around research into BMIs, “obesity” medicine, and the awful ways that fat people are treated by clinicians.
Because of what I’ve learned on Maintence Phase, I write for clinicians who approach health from a weight-positive stance. I’m not interested in pushing dietary changes that are not evidence-based. I also feel pretty strongly that most supplements are either worthless or harmful.
If you’re interested in learning about pop-medicine myths, check out Maintenance Phase on their website.
Psychedelic Support is a client I worked with throughout 2022. When their CEO approached me, I didn’t know anything about psychedelic-assisted therapy. And I felt generally leery of what seemed like a silicon valley bro-trend. But I did a ton of research into the evidence, and quickly learned that my initial feelings were un-informed.
One of the best parts of my job is getting to dive into current research to find evidence for my content. And while writing for Psychedelic Support, I learned so much about psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, LSD, and ayahuasca-assisted therapy. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is fascinating, and I now know that it’s so much more than a trend.
I also learned about an important distinction, especially within the world of ketamine clinics. From the outside, ketamine infusion centers and ketamine therapy centers may look the same. But there are really important distinctions between them. They’re run by providers with very different backgrounds (anesethesia vs. psychiatry & therapy), and patients will come out with very different experiences.
Because of my work with psychedelic support, I’m not interested in writing for ketamine infusion centers that don’t provide a direct referral or follow-up for integration therapy. It’s an essential part of the ketamine therapy process, one that’s supported by the data and the patient experiences I’ve seen.
I’m guessing you also absorb a lot of medical content, which changes your beliefs and views over time. It’s the beautiful thing about learning as we go. When we know better, we do better.
What’s Surprised You About Marketing Your Business?
Since starting out as a copywriter almost three years ago, I’ve learned a lot. Good marketing ethics is a moving target, and we can’t be expected to get it right every single time. But the point is to keep learning, and keep being thoughtful about the way we speak to customers.
Has reading this article made you think about marketing ethics in your practice? What about ways that you’ve been surprised in your business? I’d love to hear what you think, even if you disagree with my ethical takes.
To chat with me, shoot me an email at email@example.com.
- Williamson, V., Murphy, D., Phelps, A., Forbes, D., & Greenberg, N. (2021). Moral injury: The effect on mental health and implications for treatment. The Lancet Psychiatry, 8(6), 453–455. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2215-0366(21)00113-9
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. (n.d.). MEDICARE NEEDS BETTER CONTROLS TO PREVENT FRAUD, WASTE, AND ABUSE RELATED TO CHIROPRACTIC SERVICES .
- Lefebvre R, Peterson D, Haas M. Evidence-Based Practice and Chiropractic Care. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2012 Dec 28;18(1):75-79. doi: 10.1177/2156587212458435. PMID: 23875117; PMCID: PMC3716373.