Challenging misleading healthcare claims

Writing a complaint

If the organisation you are complaining to has a form or webform, it will guide you through the process and make sure you supply all the details they need.

Otherwise, you need to answer the following questions:

  1. Who is making the complaint?
  2. Where are the claims being made?
  3. Who is making the claims?
  4. What are the claims you think are misleading?
  5. Why do you think the claims are misleading and what might the effect be? (Optional)

Who is making the complaint?

Obvious, perhaps, but worth mentioning: make sure the organisation you are complaining to know who you are so they can reply to you. Also, many organisations will not accept anonymous complaints.

However, consider carefully what personal information you want to divulge. Check any complaints procedure to see what information they require. If you are not happy divulging personal details they seem to require or have concerns about their privacy policy, try to discuss it with them first and come to an agreement with them.

Complaints should be made in your own name: even though you may have used advice from us or our website, please do not suggest that you are submitting a complaint on our behalf or imply that you are associated with the Nightingale Collaboration.

Where are the claims being made?

You need to give sufficient information to clearly identify where the claims were made. If it was a leaflet, give the full title of the leaflet, the publisher and anything else given on the leaflet. If it was a newspaper or magazine, give the title, publisher, etc and say which issue it was and which page the claims were on.

Ideally, you should provide a copy of the leaflet, advert, webpage, etc. This could be sent in the post or scanned in and attached to an email or web form.

If the claims were on a website, provide the URL of the page or pages and ideally a cached copy of them in case they change.

arroworangeRead Capturing web pages for further details.

Who is making the claims?

Give as much detail as possible. If it's an advert, give the advertiser's name or trading name. If it's not clear, you could spend a bit of time trying to find out, but don't worry if you can't. Resources that might help are business directories, Companies House, and, for websites, the domain name registrant.

arroworangeRead How to find out who owns a website for further details.

What are the claims you think are misleading?

In a simple advert, it should be easy to highlight the words you think are problematic. If you think it is necessary, explain what either you think the words mean or what you think other members of the public will take the words to mean.

You could list the sections or paragraphs of the code of conduct or whatever rules you think the advertiser has not followed, but this will not always be necessary. For example, the Advertising Standards Authority are experts in their own code so there is no need to highlight section 3.1 of the CAP Code.

However, there may be good reasons for highlighting sections/paragraphs other than the obvious one: if a code of conduct talks about bringing the 'profession' into disrepute, abusing the trust of the public, doing only what's in the public's best interests or similar words, it might be worth highlighting that you think the person you are complaining about has fallen foul of those as well.

Why do you think the claims are misleading and what might the effect be?

Briefly explain why you think the claims are misleading. This will frequently be simply that you don't believe they are capable of substantiation by the advertiser (or anyone else). For the ASA, that is all you have to say, but it may be worth expanding your reasons for complaints to other organisations.

Some useful stock phrases:

  • Because of the lack of a plausible mechanism of action for and/or the lack of any robust clinical evidence to support these claims, I believe these claims are highly misleading.
  • I believe these claims may delay or dissuade people, particularly the gullible or vulnerable, with serious medical conditions from seeking proper and possibly urgently needed medical advice and treatment.
  • I believe these claims abuse the trust of members of the public and exploits their lack of experience or knowledge about health.

Putting pen to paper

Writing the complaint is very straightforward, regardless of who you are complaining to — just follow this simple guidance.

  • Keep it simple and to the point.
  • Keep it impersonal and factual.

You're not writing the story of your life, so just focus on precisely what you think is misleading.

Make your complaint logical and easy for someone to follow what you're saying. A good way of doing this is to follow the advice of the Plain English Campaign:

arrowgreenVisit the website of the Plain English Campaign for further advice and to read their free guides to writing clear and understandable English.

Many organisations provide an online form for complaints (eg the ASA), but these can sometimes be inadequate or difficult to use. Organisations should also accept complaints made by email or letter, but some will reject anything not on their specific form.

Keep a copy of your complaint and a copy of any leaflet, newspaper, etc so you can refer to it in the event of any query. Some organisations, such as the ASA, do not send you a copy of what you submitted in their webform.

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