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The Legal Department articles are not intended to serve as legal advice and are offered for educational purposes only. The information provided should not be used as a substitute for independent legal advice and it is not intended to address every situation that could potentially arise. Please be aware that laws, regulations and technical standards change over time. As a result, it is important to verify and update any reference or information that is provided in the article.
Ten Advertising Mistakes Made by Therapists
Ann Tran-Lien, JD
Managing Director, Legal Affairs
Updated April 2013
Revised November 2017
Advertising is a great way to promote your business and inform the public of the services you provide. It is one of the fundamental aspects of building a business, a career, and a name for yourself in your profession. Therapists are free to advertise, but they must do so in a manner that is truthful and accurate. The topic of advertising may seem simple enough, but California law mandates specific advertising requirements that licensed therapists, registrants, and trainees must follow. Generally, it is unlawful for therapists to disseminate any form of “public communication” containing a false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive statement. The CAMFT Code of Ethics also provides clear guidelines on ethical advertising, and states that LMFTs, registrants, and trainees may not use any professional identification if it includes a statement or claim that is false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive.
The Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) may take action against your license or registration if you fail to comply with California law on advertising. Keep in mind that the overall theme is to avoid any advertising that is, or can be reasonably construed as false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive. The omission of important information, as well as the inclusion of certain words and phrases, can render an advertisement false, misleading, or deceptive. To assist you in ensuring that your advertisement is in accordance with California law and the CAMFT Code of Ethics, this article will discuss how to avoid ten advertising mistakes that therapists regularly make.
1. Not recognizing that letterheads, e-mail addresses, or other public communications distributed to clients and the public are considered advertisements under California law.
Many therapists may be surprised to know that the law considers, among other forms of public communication, e-mail addresses, letterheads, and websites as advertisements, along with communications by means of mail, television, radio, motion picture, newspaper, book, list or directory of healing arts practitioners, business cards, and office signs. Believe it or not, the BBS has taken action (usually in the form of a citation) against licensees and registrants because of a misleading or deceptive e- mail address, website address, etc. For example, an LMFT was recently disciplined for using an e-mail address with the word “doc” within the address when she did not have a doctorate degree or a license to practice medicine. Thus, it is prudent to remember that any public communication you make, including a letterhead or an email address, must comply with the advertising requirements and not be false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive. On occasion, you may find inaccurate information about you, your license, and/or your business in a directory or mentioned on television or radio that was not approved by you. In these circumstances, it would be wise for you to immediately, or when reasonably practicable, correct or attempt to correct the erroneous information. Keeping a paper trail documenting your attempts, or the process it took you to correct inaccuracies is advisable in the event you are challenged by the BBS at a later date. Your good faith efforts to correct any inaccuracies will be your best defense to any potential BBS inquiry.
2. Advertisements for unlicensed persons that do not disclose important and relevant information required by law.
Registrants and trainees may advertise their services, but they should do so under the oversight and control of their supervisors and employers. Since registrants and trainees are required by law to be employees or volunteers, and not independent practitioners, it is recommended that the supervisor and employer approve any advertisements for registrant and trainee services.
Effective, January 1, 2018, the titles for Marriage and Family Therapist Registered Interns and Professional Clinical Counselor Interns have changed as follows:
The law requires advertisements for MFT Trainees, Registered Associate MFTs, and Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselors to include certain information to ensure that the advertisements do not give the impression that the registrant or trainee has his or her own practice.
MFT Trainee Advertisements
Advertisements for MFT Trainee services must include all of the following: 1) the Trainee's name; 2) he or she is a “Marriage and Family Therapist Trainee” or “MFT Trainee”; 3) the name of his or her employer or the name of the entity for which he or she volunteers; 4) that he or she is supervised by a licensed person; 5) the supervisor's license designation or abbreviation; and 6) the supervisor's license number.
Examples of Appropriate Advertisements:
Jack Black, Marriage and Family Therapist Trainee. Volunteering at ABC Counseling Center. Supervised by Mary Smith, LMFT #123456.
Maria Le, MFT Trainee. ABC Counseling Center. Supervised by Thomas Redd, PhD, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. LCS456789.
Registered Associate MFT Advertisements
The new regulations for Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist advertising provides that advertisements for professional services must include all of the following information: 1) the registrant's full name as it is filed with the BBS; 2) he or she is a “Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist” or “Registered Associate MFT”; 3) the Registrant’s registration number; 4) the name of his or her employer or the name of the entity for which he or she volunteers; and 5) he or she is supervised by a licensed person. In addition, if the acronym “AMFT” is used in an advertisement, the title “Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist” must also be spelled out in the advertisement.
Examples of Appropriate Registered Associate MFT Advertisements:
Anna Martinez, Marriage and Family Therapy Professional Corporation. Matthew Johnson, MA. Registered Associate MFT, AMFT67890. Under supervision of Anna Martinez, LMFT.
ABC Counseling Center. Taylor Jones, MA. AMFT, Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. AMFT67890. Supervised by a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
Registered Associate PCC Advertisements
The new regulations for Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselor advertising provides that advertisements for professional services must include all of the following: 1) the registrant's full name as it is filed with the BBS; 2) he or she is a “Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselor” or “Registered Associate PCC”; 3) the Registrant’s registration number; and 4) the name of his or her employer or the name of the entity for which he or she volunteers. In addition, if the acronym “APCC” is used in an advertisement, the title “Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselor” must also be spelled out in the advertisement. Note: The regulations allow for the use of “Professional Clinical Counselor Registered Intern” or “PCC Registered Intern” until December 31, 2018.
Examples of Appropriate Registered Associate PCC Advertisements:
Tina Thompson, MA, APCC, Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselor. PCI1234567. Volunteer for ABC Mental Health Center.
Joseph Chang, MA, Registered Associate PCC. PCI 456789. Employed by Tony Larsen, LMFT.
Registered Associate CSW Advertisements
The new law does not change the title for Registered Associate Clinical Social Workers. Existing advertising regulations pertaining to Registered Associate CSWs remain unchanged.
Advertisements for Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker services must include all of the following: 1) the registrant's full name as it is filed with the BBS; 2) he or she is a “Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker” or “Registered Associate CSW”; 3) the Associate's registration number; and 4) the name of his or her employer or the name of the entity for which he or she volunteers. In addition, if the acronym “ASW” is used in an advertisement, the title “Registered Associate Clinical Social Worker” must also be spelled out in the advertisement.
Examples of Appropriate Registered Associate CSW Advertisements:
Olivia Ross, MSW. Associate Clinical Social Worker. ASW987654. Employed by Rita Glover, LMFT.
Tyler Ronald, MA. Registered Associate CSW. ASW12345. Volunteer at ABC Counseling Center.
2. Including the words “psychotherapy” or “psychotherapist” in an advertisement without complying with regulations.
The regulation on advertising, effective April 1, 2013, specifically addresses the use of the words “psychotherapy” and/or “psychotherapist” in an advertisement. “Licensed Psychotherapist” is not an appropriate licensure title. If a licensee or registrant includes the following information in his or her advertisement, he or she is permitted to use the words “psychotherapy” and/or “psychotherapist” in the advertisement:
Examples of Appropriate Advertisements:
Michael Jensen, MA. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. LMFT123456. Psychotherapy with individuals, couples, and families.
Linda Rosenberg, LCSW. 123456. A psychotherapist practicing in San Diego.
Jared Peterson, MA. Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. 67890. Under supervision of Melissa Owens, LMFT. Provides psychotherapy services to individuals, couples, and families.
4. Failing to include the license or registration number in the advertisement.
Licensees and registrants must always include their license or registration numbers in their advertisements. Prior to this change in the regulation, licensees and registrants who advertise their services were only required to include their license or registration number in their advertisements when such advertisements did not include the individual’s full title of his or her licenses or registrations.
Ronald Maxwell, MA, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. #12345
Jason Matthews, MA, LCSW. LCS12345
Carol Weber. Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. AMFT12345. Employed by and under supervision of Carlos Santos, LMFT.
5. Failing to provide clients with accurate information regarding an unlicensed person’s unlicensed status and supervision.
Prior to performing any professional services, a trainee, Registered Associate MFT, Registered Associate CSW, and Registered Associate PCC must inform each client of their unlicensed status and provide their supervisor’s information. The law also requires trainees and Registered Associate MFT to provide their employer’s information and associate MFTs to provide their registration numbers. It would be a good idea to include this information in the disclosure statement or professional service agreement so that there is written documentation that the client was accurately informed.
6. Including information about fees in an advertisement that is not exact and includes words that are prohibited by law.
Although you do not have to include your fees in your advertisements, any advertisement that includes your fees must be exact, without the use of words or phrases, including, but not limited to, “as low as,” “and up,” “lowest prices,” or other similar words or phrases. The law specifically states that price advertising must not be fraudulent, deceitful, or misleading, including statements or advertisements of discounts or premiums, or any statements of a similar nature. The fee for each service must also be clearly identifiable. (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §651(c).) Prior to beginning treatment, therapists are also required to disclose to the client or prospective client the fee to be charged for the services. If there are any variables, such as charges for missed or cancelled sessions, that information should also be made known to the client at the outset of treatment.
Examples of Appropriate Advertisements:
The fee for service is $100 per therapy session.
A session is 50 minutes long. To cancel an appointment, please contact the therapist 24 hours in advance of your scheduled appointment. Cancellations made less than 24 hours in advance of the scheduled appointment and missed sessions will result in a $25 charge.
7. Using a fictitious business name or a “DBA” that is false, misleading, or deceptive.
If you choose to do business under a name different from your full legal name, you must file a “Fictitious Business Name Statement” otherwise known as a “DBA” (doing business as) with the registrar- recorder/county clerk office in the county where your business is located. LMFTs, LCSWs, and LPCCs conducting a practice under a fictitious name must not use any name that is false, misleading, or deceptive, and must inform the client, prior to rendering treatment services, of the name and license designation of the owner(s) of the practice.
Additionally, the CAMFT Code of Ethics specifically states, “LMFTs do not use a name that could mislead the public concerning the identity, responsibility, source, and status of those practicing under that name, and do not hold themselves out as being partners or associates of a firm if they are not” (CAMFT Code of Ethics Part I, §10.3). Thus, therapists who are sole proprietors should avoid using words in a fictitious business name that may give the impression that the sole proprietorship is a joint venture comprised of more than one owner. Such inappropriate words to include in a fictitious business name of a sole proprietorship are, “Center,” “Associates,” “Group,” etc. For an in-depth reading on joint advertising, see David Jensen’s article, “Joint Advertising: Profits or Peril?” (The Therapist, July/August 2006).
8. Using the words “psychological” or “psychologist” in an advertisement when the practitioner is not a Licensed Psychologist.
Unless you have a license as a psychologist, it is unlawful to include in your advertisement words that could lead one to believe that you are a psychologist. When you hold yourself out as being trained, experienced, or an expert in the field of psychology, or use the title “psychologist” because you have a doctorate in psychology, but not a license can be considered misleading and fraudulent. A therapist may include his or her doctoral degree in the area of psychology, such as, “clinical psychology” or “counseling psychology,” but it should be done in a manner that is not misleading or deceptive.
Example of Appropriate Advertisement:
Karen Sanchez, MS in Counseling Psychology. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Provides psychotherapy to individuals, couples, and families.
9. Making a scientific claim in an advertisement that cannot be substantiated by reliable, published scientific studies.
Advertisements that include a scientific claim must be capable of being substantiated by reliable, peer- reviewed, published scientific studies should the advertisement be challenged. If you are interested in including a scientific claim in your advertisement and would like to reference peer-reviewed, published scientific studies, a good resource is EBSCO Host, which is available to CAMFT members, free of charge. For more information, log on to www.camft.org and visit the Resources section.
Example of Appropriate Advertisement:
Julio Trujillo. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I have specialized training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to treat anxiety and related disorders. According to extensive studies, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has yielded significant and large improvements concerning symptoms of anxiety and depression.
10. Soliciting testimonials from clients to include in an advertisement.
Including testimonials in your advertisement does not necessarily fall under the overall theme of this article, which is to avoid advertising in a false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive manner; nevertheless it may be considered unethical conduct and may lead to issues of unprofessional conduct and/ or negligence. The CAMFT Code of Ethics Part I, Section 10.6 provides that solicitation of testimonials from current clients is unethical. Therapists and clients have a unique professional relationship, much different from the relationships the other professionals have with their clients. In a therapeutic relationship, the client is typically vulnerable and dependent upon the treating therapist. Accordingly, therapists should avoid behaviors and actions that could reasonably result in exploitation of the client. Since therapists can benefit monetarily from including client testimonials in their advertisements, it may lead to allegations of client exploitation. The client may feel obligated to provide the testimonial to the therapist, and/or feel as if he or she deserves favorable treatment from the therapist since the client has done a significant favor for the therapist (assisted in getting the therapist’s good word out). The client may feel hurt or rejected if he or she perceives that the therapist is ungrateful for the testimonial. In addition, therapists should consider whether there is potential exploitation if the therapist solicits testimonials from former patients. While termination has taken place, there may be a possibility that the client may wish to come back to therapy at a later time.
i Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §651(a)
ii CAMFT Code of Ethics, Part I, §10.
iii Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §4982(p)
iv Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §651; CAMFT Code of Ethics Part I, §10; Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§4989.49, 4992.2, 4999.12(j)
v Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§4980.48(b) and 4980.48(c)
vi 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(1);16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(2)(D)(ii); 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(3); 16 C.C.R. §1811(b)
vii 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(1); 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(2)(H)(ii); 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(3); 16 C.C.R. §1811(b)
viii 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(2)(H)(i)
ix 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(1); 16 C.C.R. §1811(E); 16 C.C.R. §1811(a)(3); 16 C.C.R. §1811(b)
x 16 C.C.R. §1811 (a) and (c)
xi Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §4980.44(c); §4980.48 (a); §4996.18(e); §4996.18(h); §4999.36(d); §4999.45(c)
xiii Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §4980.46; §4992.10; §4999.72
xiv Cal. Bus. & Prof, Code §651(b)(7)