Could Your Before & After Photos Cost You Millions?

patient photos, personally identifiable information, confidentiality

When it comes to showcasing your work, the old saying couldn’t be more true: A picture really is worth a thousand words. Simply put, potential patients love to see how other patients’ skin, faces and bodies have changed through cosmetic surgery.

Sometimes, however, that “value” comes with a high price tag, a reality that has once again been brought into sharp focus by way of the legal system. As recently reported by NBC News, a New York plastic surgeon is now being sued for $18 million for allegedly posting before and after photos of a patient’s rhinoplasty without her consent.

According to the lawsuit, the woman recently went to the doctor’s website and was “greatly distressed and humiliated” to see four photos — two “before” and two “after” images — highlighting the changes resulting from the nose job she had two years ago.

The crux of the case? A form she signed indicating that she did not give consent for the use of her photos. She says that finding the photos online “exposed [her] to public ridicule;” the doctor says the images were posted accidentally by a web developer, and the whole ugly mess will likely play out in court.

Needless to say, it’s unlikely that the suit in question will be resolved any time soon. Even so, it offers a timely reminder that anyone using patient photos should revisit their policies and procedures and ensure they’re doing so appropriately.

After all, you don’t need to be a lawyer — and we’re certainly not — to know that establishing and adhering to such procedures doesn’t just protect your patients. It also protects you, your practice and your reputation.

Doctor Takeaways

1. Protect yourself by protecting patient information

As the web becomes more interwoven, it becomes increasingly easy to link an online photo to its real-life subject through an image’s file name or meta-data or by conducting a simple image search. To avoid revealing Personally Identifiable Information (PII), use generic titles (not patient names) for file names, remove links to photos where possible and leave faces out of frames for all non-facial procedures.

2. Understand — and explain — what constitutes consent

All consent forms are not created equal. A form that seeks permission to use photos to document patient care does NOT authorize their use for marketing, publicity or educational purposes. A “commercial consent” form, on the other hand, allows you to use those photos for commercial purposes and in settings beyond your practice website. Either way, make sure your patients understand how and where their images may be used.

3. Establish policies and procedures before you need them

Every time a lawsuit over patient-identifying photos makes the papers, doctors wonder if they, too, are at risk. The solution isn’t to forgo photos but rather to have a system of best practices in place before you post. The photo guidelines at RealSelf offer a good point of reference and you should always consult with your legal counsel before proceeding.

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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