Doctors Using Fake Positive Reviews to Boost Business

Frankie Rowland

August 17, 2022

Five years ago, Kay Dean relied upon Yelp! and Google reviews in her search for a doctor in her area. After finding a physician with fairly high reviews, Dean was shocked when her personal experience was significantly worse than patients on the review platforms.

Kay Dean

Following her experience, Dean, a former federal government investigator, became skeptical and used her skills to investigate the practice on all review platforms. She uncovered that the practice had a review from an individual who was involved in a review trading group on Facebook, where organizations openly barter their services in exchange for positive reviews fraud.

"I discovered that the online review world was just saturated with fake reviews, much more so than I think most people are aware…and law enforcement regulators aren't doing anything to address the problem," said Dean. "In this online space, it's the Wild West; cheating is rewarded."

Dean decided to take matters into her own hands. She created a YouTube channel called Fake Review Watch, where she exposes real businesses and their attempts to dupe potential consumers with fake positive reviews.

For example, one video analyzes an orthopedic surgeon in Manhattan with an abundance of five-star reviews. Through her detailed analysis, Dean created a spreadsheet of the 26 alleged patients of the orthopedic surgeon that had submitted glowing reviews. She looked into other businesses that the individuals had left reviews for and found a significant amount of overlap.

According to the video, 19 of the doctor's reviewers had left high reviews for the same moving company in Las Vegas and 18 of them reviewed the same locksmith in Texas. Overall, eight of the patients reviewed the same mover, locksmith, and hotel in New Zealand.

A Matter of Trust

Dean expressed the gravity of this phenomenon, especially in healthcare, as patients often head online first when searching for care options. Based on a survey by Software Advice, about 84% of patients use online reviews to assess a physician and 77% use review sites as the first step in finding a doctor.

Patient trust has continued to diminish in recent years, particularly following the pandemic. In a 2021 global ranking of trust levels towards healthcare by country, the US healthcare system ranked 19th, far below those of several developing countries.

Owing to the rise of fake patient reviews and their inscrutable nature, Dean advises staying away from online review platforms. Instead, she suggests sticking to the old-fashioned method of getting recommendations from friends and relatives, not virtual people.

Dean explained a few indicators that she looks for when trying to identify a fake review.

"The business has all five-star reviews, negative reviews are followed by five-star reviews, or the business has an abnormal number of positive reviews in a short period of time," she noted. "Some businesses try to bury legitimate negative reviews by obtaining more recent, fake, positive ones. The recent reviews will contradict the specific criticisms in the negative review."

She warned that consumers should not give credibility to reviews simply because the reviewer is dubbed "Elite" or a Google Local Guide, because she has seen plenty of these individuals posting fake reviews.

Unfortunately, review platforms haven't been doing much self-policing. Google and Healthgrades have a series of policies against fake engagement, impersonation, misinformation, and misrepresentation, according to their websites. However, the only consequence of these violations is review removal.

Both Yelp! and Google say they have automated software that distinguishes real vs fake reviews. When Yelp! uncovers users engaging in compensation review activity, it removes their reviews, closes their account, and blocks those users from creating future Yelp! accounts.

Physicians' Basis

Moreover, physicians purchasing fake reviews create an unfair environment for those physicians who choose to be ethical and honest with patients.

"I think there's an erosion of business ethics because cheating is rewarded. You can't compete in an environment where your competition is allowed to accumulate numerous fake reviews while you're still trying to fill chairs in your business," said Dean. Your competition is then getting the business because the tech companies are allowing this fraud."

Family physician and practice owner Mike Woo-Ming, MD, MPH, provides career coaching for physicians, including maintaining a good reputation — in-person and online. He has seen physicians bumping up their own five-star reviews personally as well as posting negative reviews for their competition.

"I've seen where they're going to lose business, as many practices were affected through COVID," he said. "Business owners can become desperate and may decide to start posting or buying reviews because they know people will choose certain services these days based upon reviews."

Woo-Ming expressed his frustration with fellow physicians who give in to purchasing fake reviews, because the patients have no idea whether reviews are genuine or not.

To encourage genuine positive reviews, Woo-Ming's practice uses a third-party app system that sends patients a follow-up email or text asking about their experience with a link to review sites.

"Honest reviews are a reflection of what I can do to improve my business. At the end of the day, if you're truly providing great service and you're helping people by providing great medical care, those are going to win out," he said. "I would rather, as a responsible practice owner, improve the experience and outcome for the patient."

Frankie Rowland is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.

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