Chennai: In this southern city, and in cities across Tamil Nadu, the gigantic billboards of politicians and film stars have competition from an unlikely source—hospitals.

Most hospitals advertising their offerings pitch specific and specialized ones.

Some focus on laparoscopy or keyhole surgery; in these, instead of a large incision, a small hole is made and the surgical procedure carried out through it.

A hoarding advertising a surgery by the Soundarapandian bone and joint hospital at College Road, Chennai

The unorganized nature of the outdoor advertising business makes it difficult to estimate the size of this market.

MIOT Hospital, which specializes in laparoscopic surgeries, claimed to have seen a 10% jump in the number of patients since it started advertising—through billboards and on FM stations.

Nearly one-fifth of the 35 surgeries conducted everyday at the hospital are laparoscopic.

The Medical Council of India, the body that governs hospitals and doctors, allows hospitals to advertise their services, but specifies that they cannot solicit patients by offering discounts or comparing services with rivals.

Doctors are barred from advertising, although those starting a practice or moving are allowed to announce those facts through advertisements.

The city’s Soundarapandian Bone and Joint Hospital and Research Institute has seen the number of patients increase by more than 50% since it began a campaign advertising its knee replacement surgery in July 2006.

“When others are launching campaigns for specific services, we can’t afford to remain silent," said an official at the hospital, who did not want to be named.

While establishments such as Mallya Hospital and Wockhardt Hospitals Group in Bangalore do advertise their services, this is limited to a billboard on their premises mentioning the range of services on offer. In Delhi, some hospitals advertise their services.

“I don’t see much advertising by hospitals elsewhere in the country. Even if there are (such campaigns), they are few in number and typically would just be name of the hospital, logo and range of services they offer. Here they specifically highlight areas of expertise," said Asha Deb, account manager at Square Circle, the branding and advertising agency for MIOT.

Dhruva Jyoti Borah, chairman of the ethics committee at the Medical Council of India, said he has not seen billboards of hospitals advertising their services. “From the way you are describing the ads put up by hospitals in Chennai, I think they are walking the thin line between being scientifically correct and soliciting patients," Borah added.

The privately held MIOT declined to comment on its advertising budget. And its chairperson Mallika Mohandas said that the advertising was targetted at creating “awareness about laparoscopic surgery."