Social media in plastic surgery practice continues to explode driven by the marketing opportunities created by the public’s unabashed desire for before and after photos and live patient surgeries. But with this reliance on social media to market and advertise, a plastic surgeon’s practice assumes often unknown risks. In a recent Los Angeles Magazine article, Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon Ashkam Ghavami, MD, who has almost 400,000 Instagram followers to his practice, acknowledged the challenges in balancing ethics with entertainment. According to Dr. Ghavami, “Because social media is the most valuable marketing tool of our trade, some surgeons post deceptive before and after photos of patients on social media. This creates an uneven playing field and worse, harms the potential patients who are trying to choose their surgeon.”
Questions arise as to what is appropriate or legal for a physician to advertise on social media: Does it require patient consent? And who ultimately owns the content that is posted to social media?
Here are some key compliance considerations for social media in your plastic surgery practice:
1. Obtaining Patient Consent. Patient consent for social media use should be separate from other consents. Consent must deal with the circumstances of the social media use. There are a wide range of circumstances commonly seen that can impact consent. Before you ever post a before and after photo of a patient’s Brazilian butt lift, you must obtain written consent from your patient. Likewise, if your patient brings in a friend or relative to livestream a video of their medical procedure, this still requires consent directly from your patient. Without patient consent, a plastic surgeon puts their license at risk by posting patient photos or videos to social media.
2. Physician Advertising Rules. Physicians are subject to specific advertising rules by their state’s medical board, which control the messages they advertise so as not to be deceptive or misleading to the public. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also regulates physician advertising. For more on this, read Michael Byrd’s recent article “FTC Focuses on Social Media for Truth in Advertising.” The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS) and the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) also regulate physician advertising. As an example, check out this article, which discusses the first code of ethical behavior for sharing videos of plastic surgery on social media, published by Northwestern plastic surgeon Clark Schierle, MD, and presented at the ASPS annual meeting. Using “enhanced” before and after photos or stock image photos, use of models, allowing staff to post their personal beliefs and opinions on your social media accounts, and communicating directly with patients via social media are just a few ways plastic surgeons get in deep trouble with physician advertising laws.
3. Ownership of Social Media. Ownership of content posted by employees is often unaddressed. For example, physicians and nurses often post before and after photos to their personal social media accounts. This creates both potential infringement issues and patient privacy issues. As attorney Bradford Adatto noted in his recent article, “5 Key Details Every Plastic Surgeon Should Know About Their Employment Agreement” relating to plastic surgeon’s employment agreements, there are a substantial number of patient privacy laws to understand before posting patient photos to social media. Further, if the Practice intends to keep all social media content as its property, whether it is posted to a Practice account or an employee’s personal account, this needs to be addressed in a social media policy.
4. Social Media Policy. There are a variety of issues that arise when using social media to advertise medical services. Thus, it is crucial for every plastic surgery practice to develop a social media policy to address issues like employees’ use of social media and ownership of the content. The social media policy also should be memorialized in your employee handbook. Simply having a social media policy is not effective unless all staff have been informed of the policy and management is trained to implement and enforce the policy.
If you have any questions or would like to know more about the intersect of ethics and social media in plastic surgery practices, please schedule a consult at firstname.lastname@example.org.