Trashed on the Internet: What to Do Now

Shelly Reese

Disclosures

January 20, 2016

In This Article

Dealing With Bad Reviews

Although negative reviews can feel infuriating and unfair, experts say physicians need to accept them for what they are: constructive criticism, crazy rants, or something in between.

First, experts say, accept that bad reviews happen. Even doctors who generally receive glowing marks are likely to garner a few dings, says Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, who has studied medical review sites extensively.

How you respond most likely depends on the nature of the review and whose advice you lean upon. If you suspect a review is fraudulent—a damning post from an ex-spouse or a competitor, rather than a real patient—you can contact the review site. They may be able to track down the IP address of the reviewer and, if the post is illegitimate, remove it.

If the post is a wild-eyed screed from a patient, most experts advise you to ignore it. If the reviewer sounds irrational to you, he or she will probably sound irrational to potential patients as well, says Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com.

Prospective patients want to get as complete a picture of your practice as possible, and they expect to see a smattering of negative reviews. "When people read reviews, they ask themselves, 'Are these reviewers people like me?'" It's the reviews with which people identify—not the outliers—that become the most salient to your business, Fertik says.

"Once you get over your initial reaction of anger and shock, ask yourself, 'Do I need to respond?' Usually, there is not a ton of upside for getting into it with patients," says Goldman.

Although lawyers may generally advise physicians against responding to reviewers, representatives from the review sites disagree. "People want to know that the business owner took the time to read and respond to their review," says Darnell Holloway, director of business outreach for Yelp.

If you do respond, keep it polite, general, and HIPAA-compliant, and only respond once. It's okay to make general statements about your practice's policies and procedures, he says, but don't get into a public back-and-forth debate with a reviewer. Some sites, such as Yelp, enable physicians to send a private response to a reviewer.

Above all, Goldman says, don't even think about filing a lawsuit, because the fight – and the results – won't be what you anticipate. Even if you can unmask an anonymous poster, you won't be filing a winnable defamation suit, he says. Instead, you'll find yourself slapped with a malpractice suit or a medical board complaint. You'll be forced to do battle in the court of public opinion, and the review, which might otherwise have gone largely unnoticed, will suddenly become newsworthy.

What's more, the vast majority of doctors who file lawsuits lose. "It's a horror story for doctors," he says. "The odds that they will lose are high, and the odds that they will write a check to the patient for their legal fees are not trivial."

Rather, he says, physicians in most cases need to ignore the diatribes and open-mindedly consider criticisms that may include potentially important insights. In a study published in April 2013, researchers at Vanguard Communications found patients who posted negative reviews were four times more likely to complain about a provider's indifference, bedside manner, or customer service than about his or her medical skills.[1]

That's the type of feedback doctors should appreciate, Goldman says, because it's actionable.

"I think there are some doctors who feel those reviews are irrelevant to their business," he says. "They don't care if someone says they have inconvenient parking. But I guarantee patients will drop a doctor—regardless of their quality—if they have a parking problem. Doctors need to be responsive to the idea that patients are giving them valuable feedback."

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