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For My Fellow Physicians: How to Comply with Maryland’s New Truth in Advertising Law

On October 1, 2012, Maryland’s truth in advertising law went into effect. It requires physicians to provide more accurate and transparent information about their credentials, a change that I applaud. I feel the law is of particular importance to patients seeking cosmetic procedures, because previously it was often difficult for them to determine a physician’s true area of training.

For example, a physician trained as a family practice doctor can still legally perform cosmetic procedures, but if they claim to be “board certified” they must state that they are “board certified in family medicine.” This important distinction lets the consumer know that this doctor’s primary training was not in plastic surgery, but in a completely different area of medicine altogether.

The law adds necessary restrictions on how physicians can represent their qualifications. But it also allows those of us in Maryland who are American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) certified plastic surgeons to clarify a level of distinction that was previously muddied by “cosmetic” surgeons either affiliated with an unrecognized board or certified in a different specialty.

That said, I feel we can only take full advantage of this distinction if we carefully consider both the mandates and the limits of the law. Here’s what the law requires:

  • A physician may claim to be “board-certified” if and only if he or she is a medical doctor certified by one of the 24 member boards of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), such as the American Board of Plastic Surgery.
  • That physician must specify the area of certification when claiming that he or she is board certified (i.e., “board-certified in plastic surgery”).

Here’s what the law doesn’t require:>

  • While the law prohibits physicians not certified by approved boards from stating they are “board-certified,” it does not prohibit these individuals from offering cosmetic surgery procedures.
  • The law does not explicitly obligate board certified physicians to mention their credentials; it only requires them to identify the area of certification if they do claim board certification.

If, like me, you are an ABPS-certified plastic surgeon in Maryland, you can see how it may not be enough to simply comply with the law. Our patients now have good reason to assume that if a plastic surgeon does not clearly outline the details surrounding his or her board certification, then that surgeon may not be appropriately qualified to perform plastic surgery procedures safely or deliver satisfactory results.

If you would like to make the new law work most effectively for you, here are some strategies I suggest using in your communications with patients:

  1. Spell out the name of the board (acronyms are not enough). Even though the law permits you to state that you are “board certified in plastic surgery” if you hold ABPS certification, mentioning the full name of this specialty board will help patients clearly identify your qualification.
  2. List approved sub-specialties after you’ve identified your area of board certification. For instance, if you are also certified in a sub-specialty of plastic surgery, such as Plastic Surgery Within the Head and Neck, you still must state your board certification in plastic surgery by the ABPS under the new law.
  3. Differentiate your certification by the ABPS from your membership in the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). Although ASPS members must be board certified, understandably patients may not know this. Explaining your affiliation with both will avoid confusion and ensure you are in compliance.
  4. Take the time to distinguish your ABPS certification within the context of the ABMS, and briefly explain how your board certification benefits patients. The American Board of Medical Specialties maintains the most rigorous standards for training, evaluation, and continuing education. When patients understand what your board certification means to them, they will feel even better about their choice.
  5. Be consistent throughout your communications. If you are certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, patients need to know this whether they are scanning your home page, interviewing you at a consultation, or reviewing a patient information packet. Remember, patients will notice what is missing from your credentials just as they notice what is there. Don’t give any patient reason to doubt if your board certification is legitimate with respect to the new law.

With Maryland now among nearly 40 states either considering truth in advertising legislation or with such laws already in place, it is clear that patients across the nation place high priority on finding a plastic surgeon who meets rigorous standards for training, experience, and safety. And while the new law goes a long way towards eliminating misleading claims by physicians, it remains our job as board-certified plastic surgeons to help our patients know when they have found a true plastic surgery specialist.