Information provided by Barbara J. Ahern, Esq., NYSVMS Executive Board Counsel
Question: My practice utilizes the services of several specialists on a regular basis. Can I advertise that I have specialists on staff?
The Rules of the Board of Regents specifically address advertising by licensed professionals, and provide that advertising "not in the public interest" shall constitute professional misconduct. Advertising not in the public interest includes advertising "that is false, fraudulent, deceptive or misleading" or "that makes any claim relating to professional services ... which cannot be substantiated by the licensee."
The New York General Business Law makes false advertising illegal, punishable by a $500 fine for each instance of false advertising. The AVMA Code of Ethics also addresses advertising by veterinarians and defines false and misleading advertising as advertising that communicates false information or is intended, through a material omission, to leave a false impression.
A veterinary practice can include the names of staff veterinarians in an advertisement, but to avoid misleading the public and making any statement that can be construed as "false advertising," the listing of staff veterinarians, their degrees and any board certifications must be accurate and truthful (see AVMA guidelines for appropriate degrees and specialty designations for veterinarians). Only veterinarians employed by the practice should be listed as staff veterinarians.
Veterinarians who work part-time can usually be considered part of your veterinary staff if they are employees of the practice. Relief veterinarians who are not employees of the practice should not be listed as part of your veterinary staff.
Specialists who are not employees of the practice but are available for consultations should not be listed as employees of the practice (staff veterinarians) even if their services may be rendered from time to time on the premises of the practice.
Specialists providing services to a veterinary practice can be mentioned in an advertisement as being available to clients of the practice through the practice, and days/times the specialist is available. Since the specialist is not an employee of the practice, the practice should ensure that the specialist has reviewed and approved any mention of him or her in an advertisement before its publication.
Can a veterinary practice force employees to agree to have their photos and biographies posted on the practice’s website?
This question delves into the gray area of workplace privacy. While there is universal agreement that an individual is not entitled to the same privacy rights in the workplace as they are guaranteed in their home, the extent to which your employees are guaranteed any workplace privacy is a changing area of the law.
In New York, the Civil Rights Law (section 50) provides that the name, portrait or picture of any living person may not be used for advertising purposes without having first obtained the written consent of that person. This law has been held by the courts to apply to situations where a business concern sought to use pictures of employees in advertising materials. Violation of this law is a criminal offense.
In order to ensure that you are not in violation of this law, you must obtain the consent of your employees to use their names and their pictures on your website, which is really an online advertisement for your veterinary hospital. Many corporations routinely ask employees to give consent for the business to use their name, their picture, and limited information about them in advertising materials.
You should give careful consideration to the type of information about your employees that you make available on your website. Employers are not entitled to make public disclosures about the private lives of their employees, and an employer may be held liable for a violation of this standard if the public disclosure is highly offensive to a reasonable person, and if the subject matter is not of legitimate concern to the public.
A good rule to use when determining the information about employees that you will post on your website is to limit it to that information that is relevant to the job they are performing in the practice. Information such as job title, licensing and educational credentials (if required for the position), and amount of experience in the field are all related to the service they provide to customers within the practice. Avoid giving any personal information about employees that will enable an unhappy client to locate their home address, and perhaps plan to confront them at home.
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