Web Sites

Legal Issues In Using a Dental Practice Website

Having a dental practice website is almost becoming a necessary part of doing business in dentistry these days, and it’s probably only just a matter of time before the race to internet marketing reaches all aspects of the dental field. But there are legal implications that dentists must be aware of before hiring someone else to set up their website.

A web site will likely be the primary way you project yourself to the public, both prospective patients as well as current patients, and so with the number of issues involved, there should be a written agreement in place. A verbal agreement to give a friend, relative or a friend of a friend a small sum of money to create a site will not protect yourself against a bad business decision, with legal implications, that could affect your business for some time. The ease of doing it yourself or having someone doing it quickly and inexpensively prevents some very important aspects of development from being included in a written agreement.

The price of course is a most important concern. Put in writing what you will get for what price, and if further necessary work or updating will cost anything. The number of pages involved (usually a minimum of five pages is adequate for a starter site), whether pictures are involved and from where (many “images” pictures from the internet are protected by copyright law from being used commercially), and the price for a web hosting service are details that must be in writing.

There should be a provision requiring previewing for quality and meeting other standards before the site becomes public. If you don’t like the site quality, and until you or your lawyer are satisfied that it meets legal requirements that are involved with dental web sites, don’t approve it or pay the complete fee, and have this written into the agreement.

Search engine optimization is a key part of the value of any web site, and there is a wide variety of prices that can be charged for how high up on a Google search or with another search engine your practice will be when people are surfing the web for particular types of dentists in particular areas.   Get some indications of what the search engine results have been for similar practices and similar optimization packages, and make sure it is provided in writing. See what parts of the site would also come up in a search.   If the developer promises a certain type of results, they should be able to put it in writing.

Dentistry and advertising of dental services is specifically regulated by state and federal law, and you, your lawyer, and the web site developer should be aware of those restrictions. Massachusetts law requires disclosure of any referral service fees and arrangements, and if a dental office mentions it can provide specialty services, those services must be performed within the practice. Disclosure of the risks of procedures as well as the benefits must be included in web site advertising, and if any statistics are used, then they must be able to be verified by potential patients.

You may want to include pictures of your dentistry on your website, including before and after pictures, but these are regulated by HIPAA, privacy and other statutes regarding patient information availability to the public. Under HIPAA, no recognizable features must be displayed publicly without the patient’s permission, and that includes any parts of the face such as nose, eyes or ears. Additional restrictions on advertising in Massachusetts prohibit the use of “show cases” or representations of teeth or restorations on web sites.

Fees can be included in web sites, though no undisclosed fees or additional costs can be involved with the procedures mentioned.   If there is a discount, then the total fee must be noted first. Claims of superiority of dental services and more specifically that the practice renders the “performance of painless operations” are prohibited.

The long term development of the site is particularly important to have included in a web site agreement, and a good long term maintenance provision is a key to a successful web site. As Robert Simpson, the President of a firm specifically offering dental practice marketing in Massachusetts, RSA Communications, put it, it is ‘”important to make sure your vendor can update your site in a timely fashion. It’s better to not have a site than to have one that is not updated and is obviously stale.”

The ownership and rights of the developer and the owner of aspects of the web site are important to lay out in the agreement, and the copyright provisions as well as the ability of the developer and owner to use parts of the site for further commercial benefit should be specified.

Overall, dental practices have been fairly slow to get involved with web site promotion compared to much of the business world, and the complexities of legal implications particular to dentistry might be a reason. But as more and more practices start using it, every dentist should be getting on the bandwagon with those practices who are keeping up with the rest of the dental field by using a web site.