Bashed by a Patient on the Internet: Here's How to Respond

Shelly Reese


March 05, 2019

In This Article

The Right and Wrong Way to Handle Internet Criticism

Whether physicians like it or not, patients are checking physicians out online, and they're focusing more and more on written reviews, not just stars.

Lindsay Neese Burton, healthcare marketing director at, an online reputation management company based in Redwood City, California, says that 80% of consumers not only want to see "star" ratings, they also want to see at least a half dozen written reviews by patients with whom they can identify. "They want to read about what type of care other patients received and what type of interaction they had," she says. "It feels more real to them."

Despite the fact that a majority of patient reviews are positive, according to experts, most physicians are uncomfortable with having their services publicly critiqued. A patient's perception may be unfairly colored by their own personality or outlook; or a patient may have a vendetta against the physician for some other reason, and there's no way to publicly check out the validity of the complaint.

Additionally, as physicians are aware, while they may provide excellent clinical care, a patient may leave the encounter dissatisfied for any number of reasons, many of which are out of the physician's control. A receptionist in a bad mood, a long wait, inconvenient parking, a refused request for an unnecessary antibiotic, and more can all result in stinging and "unfair" online reviews to which doctors say they can't adequately respond because of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) constraints.

What can a physician do to combat this? Although experts offer different perspectives, their recommendations are all variations on the same theme: the best defense is a good offense. Avoid playing whack-a-mole with negative reviews and focus your attention on cultivating an online presence that reflects your practice.

How to Handle a Stinging Review

Although it may be a challenge to remain calm, there are a few important recommendations:

  • Take a deep breath and stay calm. No one likes criticism, and it's tempting to fly off the handle when confronted with remarks that may be personal, unfair, or inaccurate. Tempting though it may be to respond to a testy review with an equally testy response, don't

  • Move the conversation offline. Politely acknowledge the reviewer's feedback and your regret that they had a negative experience; note that patient privacy considerations constrain your ability to respond online and invite the reviewer to contact you or your office for further conversation. "You want to let people know you're listening and that this is a place where you are willing to receive feedback," Burton says

  • Consider the opportunity. Although it's sometimes hard to see it this way, negative feedback is an opportunity for practice improvement. Is there something to be gleaned from the review? Has a patient raised an actionable concern? When a physician or practice responds to a negative review by addressing a problem, it not only results in practice improvement and a chance to keep the patient, it may also prompt the reviewer to remove the negative remark or post a second post noting that the situation was resolved and highlighting the practice's responsiveness

  • Forget suing. In the vast majority of situations, suing a patient over online comments is a bad idea, says Eric Goldman, codirector of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University in California. "Lawsuits are a rarity, and they're counterproductive. They call attention to the negative comments, and even if the doctor wins, they are not going to be satisfied with the outcome. The vindication will not be worth the cost and effort and it just raises the chances of a counter claim for malpractice"


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