Photo/IllutrationThe Japan Society of Aesthetic Surgery’s website (Captured from the website)

An organization of cosmetic surgeons admitted that it routinely leaked patients’ post-operation complaints to their doctors or clinics, drawing outrage and criticism of possible legal violations over the sloppy handling of personal information.

The Japan Society of Aesthetic Surgery (JSAS), a general incorporated association consisting of 958 doctors and others, said the leaks stemmed from its free consultation service for patients who suffered from post-procedure problems.

“We established the consultation service in order to provide answers to health-related troubles and request clinics that drew complaints to make improvements,” an official of the JSAS secretariat said. “We thought that as long as we redacted the names and home addresses, it would not be considered personal information. We were naive about it.”

The problem is that even without the names and addresses, details of the consultations still contained enough information to identify the patients. And this information often ended up in the hands of the offending doctor or clinic.

A woman in her 30s in Tokyo asked for advice through the JSAS website in 2018. She was suffering from an infection after undergoing a breast augmentation procedure at a clinic.

Although she received some treatment at the clinic, the pain and swelling did not disappear. So she filled a consultation form on the website, asking for the names of hospitals that could treat her symptoms.

The woman said she never received a response from JSAS.

Instead, she soon received a phone call from the clinic that performed the breast augmentation procedure.

“You consulted JSAS, didn’t you?” the caller said.

The woman said she was simply looking for information from JSAS.

But the caller then told her: “Even if you ask the JSAS, your claim will be eventually forwarded to us anyway. So, just contact us.”

“I was horrified by the fact that the information had been completely leaked to the clinic,” the woman said. “I trusted the JSAS because it is a group of specialized physicians. But they leaked my information. I feel sad rather than angry.”

The JSAS started the free consultation service for patients of cosmetic surgery clinics on its website in 2013.

Those with complaints were asked to fill out an online form, including name, home address, age, clinic’s name, doctor’s name, site of procedure, e-mail address and why they were seeking consultations.

After the forms were submitted, the JSAS promised to provide a reply from a consultant with thorough knowledge of cosmetic medical field.

The JSAS said it has received about 100 consultation requests annually, most of which are about health concerns, such as post-procedure pain, and complaints about the doctor’s attitude or fees.

Staff of the JSAS secretariat forwarded each consultation request to several board members via e-mail, after redacting the patients’ names and home addresses.

If a board member determined that a particular clinic should be given guidance, details of the consultation were sent to the clinic--with no prior consent from the patient.

In some cases, board members were the physicians named in the complaints. But they could still receive the e-mails and browse information about the consultations.

The total number of cases in which the JSAS leaked consultation information to clinics remains unknown.

The questionable practice had continued until autumn last year, when the JSAS secretariat received an anonymous phone call: “I got scolded by my doctor after I consulted the JSAS. Don’t leak my personal information.”

The call prompted the JSAS to seek legal advice. After its lawyer pointed out that its practice possibly violated the Protection of Personal Information Law, the JSAS stopped sharing the consultation information with clinics in November.

Since then, patients have only received a reply from a board member, according to the JSAS.

“We will take the suggestions sincerely,” Masaru Hoshina, the JSAS chairman and head of a cosmetic surgery clinic in Tokyo’s Ginza district, said in a statement issued to The Asahi Shimbun. “We have eliminated the entry of patients’ personal information and will make efforts to further protect such information so that patients will be able to ask for advice with a sense of security.”

The JSAS currently accepts consultation requests if an e-mail address and name or nickname are provided.

But such modifications may not be enough to ease patients’ concerns.

The Tokyo woman said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun: “I feel uncomfortable revealing my name when consulting about trouble with cosmetic surgery. There should be a consultation service that people can use anonymously.”

Masatomo Suzuki, a professor at Niigata University whose specialty is the Protection of Personal Information Law, is highly critical of the JSAS’s handling of patients’ information, calling it “extremely sloppy.”

“It doesn’t matter if it strips the name and home address from the information. As long as it contains some personally identifiable data, it is legally considered personal information,” Suzuki said.

“The JSAS irresponsibly leaked the patients’ information to clinics, the party that actually caused trouble for patients, without thinking how they would use the given information. The organization should deeply regret about it,” he added.