Gone are the days when simply hanging your shingle was enough to build a practice. Today you need to decorate that shingle, take selfies with it, and share them on social media. In other words, to market your brick and mortar practice, you need to have a consistent presence online, and increasinglya visual presence.

According to the 2016 Social Media Marketing Industry Report, nearly three quarters of social media marketers said visual marketing was the most important form of content to promote their businesses. On Facebook, posts with images were more than twice as likely to be shared. And there are plenty more statistics if you need more convincing.

But, before you start populating your website, blog posts, or twitter stream with visual images, you need to consider a few things:

You probably already know that violating HIPAA rules, say, by having photos of patients without their written consent, can result in huge fines and even loss of licensure. You are probably not so familiar with copyright laws. Not being legal experts ourselves, we defer to attorney Sara Hawkins for this information. Here is her definition of copyright law:

“Copyright is a federal law of the United States that protects original works of authorship. Copyright attaches as soon as the original work is created, and applies to both published and unpublished works.”

What this means is that all images, even those splashed all over social media and the internet, are potentially owned by someone. And that someone could sue you for using their photo, drawing, cartoon, etc… without their permission. And these lawsuits can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Even if the chances of getting discovered are small, it is just not worth it. You can read more in depth about copyright laws on Sara Hawkins’ site.

As a result, to stay on the right side of the law, you need to verify the source and permissions of any images you use. Luckily there are many online collections to choose images from that you can use legally. Some images are free and some come at a cost.


Free Image Sources

Google has millions of images catalogued and easily searchable. But, just because you find something on the internet does not mean you can use it for free or otherwise. You need to know the source and usage rights attached to any image you use. To do this on Google, go to images.google.com and enter your search term. Once an array of images shows up, click on the Tools button beneath the search bar. Then you can use the Usage Rights dropdown to filter images.

If you simply come across an image on the internet that you like, click on the image directly and see if it takes you to the image source. By doing this, you can often find the name and contact information of the person who created it. And you’d be surprised how often people are happy to share their images for free if you simply ask. Just make sure to credit the author if they request that (or as an act of goodwill if they don’t).

The NIH Image Gallery and the Wellcome Collection offer a diverse array of modern and historical medical images that are free to use. Many of these are licensed under what is called Creative Commons Attribution. You can search the Creative Commons website directly to find images that are in the public domain or otherwise free of copyright. Since you will likely be using any images you find for your business, check the box “use for commercial purposes.”

You can also find online photo suppliers that offer images for free. These include Pixabay, Unsplash, and Death to the Stock Photo. While not always medically relevant, the images from these sites can be great when used symbolically—think of a woman holding a warm cup of tea for an article about a great new treatment for tremors, for example.

Paid Image Sources

There are a number of subscription image sources to choose from. Three of the most common are Adobe Stock, iStock, Shutterstock. The databases for these companies are very large and include many beautiful and medically-relevant images. If you don’t mind spending a monthly fee, (around $30–$40 at the time of this writing) and you want to save time finding images, this is the way to go.

If money is not your biggest concern then you can think about going with a professional photographer or medical illustrator. At the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, medical illustrator Andrew Swift from the company iSO-FORM presented some beautiful intricate 3D images he has created for neurologists. You can find medical illustrators like Swift through the Association of Medical Illustrators.

It is up to you whether you supply your own visuals, or go with a free or paid source; you’ll benefit from adding images to your marketing either way. Just make sure you know the rules. When you hang out your metaphorical shingle, you don’t want someone to bump their head on it or claim you stole it and then take you to court.