For some patients, one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the plastic surgery journey is the before-and-after photos that are taken at their surgeon’s office. Many find being photographed nude or semi-nude embarrassing or scary. Surgeons are required to provide consent forms stating what the photos will be used for, and patients then have the option of allowing the surgeon to share the photos with other patients so they can see what to expect from their surgical results. This is a long-standing practice, and one that usually goes off without a hitch. But, that wasn’t the case for one woman whose before and after photos showed up online – and with her name on them!
When Mandi Stillwell visited Aesthetic Laser Center in Fresno, California, for an abdominoplasty, breast lift and breast implants, she consented to the surgeon, Quita Lopez, taking photos of her before and after the procedure. Stillwell even agreed to let Aesthetic Laser Center share the photos with other patients who were considering those procedures. But what happened next came as quite a shock.
Soon after her procedure, Stillwell met a man on a popular dating app. The man, wanting to know more about her, Googled Stillwell’s name, and up came the before and after photos – with her name attached to them. Naturally, Stillwell was shocked and upset, and she sued Aesthetic Laser Center for $300,000 in damages. Though she was not awarded the full $300,000, on August 7, 2017, a Fresno Superior Court jury found Lopez and Aesthetic Laser Center negligent and ordered Lopez to pay Stillwell $18,000 in damages.
Dr. Bruce Chau, a plastic surgeon in Berkley, Michigan, says that while rare, cases like Stillwell’s do sometimes happen.
“Consent forms are usually processed by humans, and obviously humans make mistakes,” says Chau. “Usually, it’s a case of the patient’s photo being shared without their consent. Very rarely do we hear about their name being attached to a photo.”
Thankfully, Chau says most photos do not show the patient’s face, so even when photos are accidentally shared, the patient cannot be tied to the photo in any way. But despite their rarity, cases like Stillwell’s can be much more problematic.
“It’s easy enough to take a photo off a website,” says Chau. “The picture might show up in a cached search, but without any identifiers, the patient can remain relatively anonymous. But once your name is tied to the photo, it can be extremely difficult to remove that connection.”
Chau recommends patients clearly mark their consent forms, and ask questions before signing off on them.
“Be sure you understand what you’re signing,” he says. “If you consent to sharing your photos, do you consent to those photos being published on your surgeon’s website, or just for use in the office? If you don’t consent to the photos being used beyond your personal file, ask where the files are stored and who has access to them. If a digital camera is used, ask if the photos are uploaded to a secure server or are encrypted. If the photos are printed, ask where they are printed, and if the file is deleted after printing.”
As for legal recourse, Chau says patients who have had their files shared illegally should first file a claim with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which will investigate the claims and act accordingly. If found guilty, practitioners who violate HIPAA laws could face fines and even criminal charges.