Wednesday, July 6, 2016

When digital marketing goes wrong

Tweet an appointment reminder to a patient. Post photos from a Botox party on Instagram. Offer rewards for referrals. To social marketers, these strategies may sound like perfect cosmetic surgery promotions. But it turns out that each of these strategies could land a physician in court. That’s according to Alex Thiersch, a Chicago attorney and director of the American Med Spa Association.

Cosmetic surgery has embraced social media to a greater extent than any other field of medicine, reflecting its unique reliance on marketing and advertising, says Mr. Thiersch. At the same time, he says, these retail-born strategies must be legal and ethical.

The problem is that those marketers and advertisers don’t understand the unique rules of medicine, says Thiersch, who spoke recently at The Aesthetic Meeting, the annual gathering of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

“We’ve seen a lot of non-health care marketing companies start moving into this space from the insurance and auto industry worlds. They come in without any knowledge of health care regulation,” Mr. Thiersch tells Cosmetic Surgery Times. “They try to solicit doctors and say, ‘This is how we market, this is what has proved successful in industry X.’ To their credit, it often does, but they’re often using techniques that are just flat out illegal or toe the line of ethics.”

So what exactly could go wrong? Here are a few examples, compliments of Mr. Thiersch:


Twitter is a big part of social marketing, and a promotions consultant could tweet a patient with a simple message, such as, “Great seeing you today for your laser treatment. See you next week and don’t forget the sunscreen! #sunsmart”

The problem: A tweet like this violates a patient’s privacy.

Mr. Thiersch has heard “horror stories” of posts on social media that have inadvertently exposed the names of patients — and their procedures — to the world. “If you’re blasting out posts over social media, and you’re recognizing individual patients,” he says, “you need to be careful.”


“Social media is all about posting photos,” Mr. Thiersch says. Cosmetic surgeons may have special events where someone snaps a photo of patients getting treatments. Or perhaps someone shoots a selfie at the event and a patient is in the background getting a Botox injection.

“Then it gets blasted on Instagram,” he says. While he hasn’t seen anyone get in trouble for this particular kind of privacy violation, Mr. Thiersch says it’s a clear-and-present danger.


Have you ever received a negative review? It’s hard not to take it personally and your initial reaction can be to provide a detailed response to a negative review on sites like Yelp, Mr. Thiersch says. But watch out: You may violate a patient’s privacy by revealing too much information about their case.


“Everybody and their brother has smart phones and tablets,” Mr. Thiersch says. “People need to be careful about whether those devices are secure.”

At the office, be careful about allowing outsiders, like your marketing consultants, to gain access to computers that hold patient information. “The sole job of marketers is to bring people in,” he says. “They’re not coached on traditional medical health care issues.”

Keep in mind that protected health information goes beyond the basics of name, date of birth and condition. According to Thiersch, other protected health information includes email addresses, telephone and fax numbers, Social Security numbers and even car license plates and account numbers.


Your credit card rewards you when you bring in a new customer. So why shouldn’t a cosmetic surgeon offer the same deal to his or her patients? A marketing consultant may want to start a program that gives patients a free gift card when they make a successful referral.

Think again, Thiersch says. “In most states you can’t pay something in value for a referral,” he says. If you try, you might violate anti-kickback laws.

Instead, just say “thank you” to the patient who provides a referral. And just say “no thanks” to a marketer who wants to take it a step too far.

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