Like most physicians, Dr. Susan Hardwick-Smith was used to receiving the occasional negative online review about her practice. But a biting post from several years ago was so wrenching that it nearly drove the Houston ob.gyn. out of medicine for good.

The patient blasted Dr. Hardwick-Smith on a popular review site about her care during a delivery and accused the doctor of attempting to force an unnecessary C-section. The account was inaccurate, but privacy laws prevented Dr. Hardwick-Smith from defending herself online or sharing details of the actual encounter, she said.

“She wrote this very detailed account of what a terrible doctor I was, and in my version of reality, I had saved her baby’s life,” said Dr. Hardwick-Smith . “I felt extremely powerless. I lost a lot of sleep over it, and I was considering giving up delivering babies. It was a real turning point for me.”

Rather than hanging up her white coat, Dr. Hardwick-Smith began working with an online reputation company – eMerit – that works to dilute negative reviews by soliciting a greater number of reviews from patients. The offensive post is now buried under hundreds of other reviews that are primarily positive, she said.

Hiring a reputation management company is one strategy for coping with negative online reviews. But cyberlaw experts stress that removing negative posts altogether is no easy feat. The best move to take often depends on the post, the patient, and the circumstance.

By now, it’s no secret that negative online reviews can significantly impact a medical practice, from influencing patient recruitment to affecting practice revenue to ruining a reputation. A 2015 survey of 2,354 consumers by search marketing firm BrightLocal found that 92% of consumers read online reviews – up from 67% in 2010 – and 40% of consumers had formed an opinion by reading just one to three reviews. Of 2,137 patients who viewed online reviews, 35% selected a physician based on positive reviews, while 37% avoided doctors with negative reviews, according to a 2014 study in JAMA ( doi:10.1001/jama.2013.283194 ).

Reviews have become a strong force in the health care industry, said Peter Yelkovac, an online defamation attorney in Northern Indiana.

“Online reviews have really replaced the common ‘word of mouth’ that used to be the primary source for doctors referrals,” Mr. Yelkovac said in an interview. “Now, [patients] go online. Anyone can type anything they want, whether it’s truthful, untruthful, positive, indifferent, or negative.”

Doctor vs. website

In some cases, contacting a website administrator and requesting a review be removed can end the dilemma, said Michael J. Sacopulos , a medical malpractice defense attorney based in Terre Haute, Ind.

Rating sites generally have “terms of use,” and posts that violate the terms usually will be taken down by site administrators with some nudging, Mr. Sacopulos said in an interview. Other sites have “strike policies,” where a reviewee can request that one or two negative reviews be removed.

Still other sites are not as accommodating. Amazon, for instance, has immunity against content posted on the site, Mr. Sacopulos said. Under the Communications Decency Act, interactive computer services, such as a consumer review website, cannot be liable for content independently created or developed by third-party users. Such sites are hardly motivated to remove negative comments when racy posts can drive traffic to the site, he said.

Eric M. Joseph, MD , a facial plastic surgeon in West Orange, N.J., learned this lesson firsthand when he attempted to have a video removed from YouTube. A poster had uploaded copyright-protected before and after photos from Dr. Joseph’s practice onto YouTube and made disparaging comments about the patients in a video that went viral. Dr. Joseph and the patient both flagged the video for removal, but to no avail.

“It was impossible to [talk to] a human being at Google,” Dr, Joseph said. “It almost didn’t come down, and we were in conversations about suing Google. It took months and a cyberattorney who specializes in copyright infringement.”

The video finally was removed, but not before Dr. Joseph spent $6,000 in legal fees and experienced significant distress from the incident. Although most reviews about his practice are positive, he said, it’s difficult not to be affected by negative posts.

“From a psychological standpoint, it stings,” he said. “The burn of a negative review outweighs the sweetness of a positive review 100 times.”

Reputation companies to the rescue?

Like Dr. Hardwick-Smith, Dr. Joseph has utilized the online reputation management company eMerit to improve his online presence. The company gathers reviews from patients at the point of service and posts them to dominate review sites.

The solution to pollution is dilution, which means counterbalancing negative reviews with more representative reviews,” said Jeffrey Segal , MD, a neurosurgeon and attorney, and the founder of eMerit. “The next step is to deescalate conflict if you know who the patient is – to see if the patient problem can be resolved. Typically a patient is pleasantly surprised that you took the effort to call. Because the bar is so low, it’s very easy to exceed it.”

Physicians subscribe to eMerit on a month-to-month basis, paying $100-$600 a month, depending on the practice’s needs, Dr. Segal said. He touted a greater than 90% renewal rate, and said eMerit has captured and uploaded more than 150,000 patient reviews since its inception.

For the online reputation management company Reputation.com , health care providers have become one of the its most frequent clients, said Michael Fertik , company founder. Reputation.com solicits reviews from patients after appointments and ensures their visibility on top review sites. The platform also integrates reviews from general and health care review sites to help providers address patient feedback and receive alerts when negative reviews are posted. Rates start at $50 a month.

Mr. Fertik noted that more reviews not only overtake negative posts, but they make physicians easier to find by patients.

“If you have more than 10-15 reviews, you have a higher chance of getting a new patient because the search engine is going to favor doctors that have more reviews,” he said. “Doctors that have a small number of reviews don’t exist as far as search engines are concerned.”

However, all online reputation management firms are not equal, Mr. Sacopulos warned. Some are unfamiliar with the health care space, while others are unclear on health care privacy regulations. Mr. Sacopulos learned of a company that was sending patients texts to request reviews, which was likely a privacy violation and a violation of the Telecommunications Act, he said.

““Some [companies] are much more credible, and they understand health care law more than others,” he said. “Some have the technological capabilities to do things, but don’t understand the legal environment, so you need to be very careful [about whom] you pick.”

Time to sue?

Litigation is generally the last resort to fighting unfavorable online reviews. If a doctor believes a review is unfair or defamatory, and all other efforts have been exhausted, a lawyer may be able to help, Mr. Yelkovac said.

“When someone says, ‘I want to sue,’ that’s a possibility, but that’s typically far down the road,” he said. “Lawsuits are expensive. Lawsuits have an unknown outcome, and I would say, many times when you do sue for defamation, [the poster] may or may not have a lot of money, so you may end up spending a lot of money and you don’t recover anything from the patient.”

The majority of the lawsuits Mr. Yelkovac handles related to online reviews seek to unmask the poster with the aid of subpoenas and at times computer forensics, he said. From there, doctors can decide which action to take, such as contacting the poster and asking to have the comment removed.

“Sometimes it’s a surprise,” he said. “Sometimes it’s an ex-employee. Sometimes it’s a family member, or it could potentially be a competitor. Many times it’s not even a patient, and sometimes it’s a patient [who] the doctor never thought would post a review.”

Reviews and malpractice risk

Remember that not all unfavorable reviews are necessarily negative for physicians, said Brant Avondet , founder of Searchlight Enterprises, a malpractice risk prediction and online physician ratings research company.

A pattern of reviews that express the same concerns or frustrations by patients can be used to address and change internal policies and problems, such as multiple complaints about long wait times or a crowded parking lot, he said. Perhaps the front desk staff is repeatedly unfriendly to patients. Taking steps to correct these concerns could help in the long run, Mr. Avondet said.

Searchlight Enterprises recently presented study findings about a suggested link between online ratings and legal risk for physicians at a national medical insurance conference . Mr. Avondet and his colleagues evaluated claims data for 4,000 Florida physicians from the Florida Healthcare Practitioner Data Portal from 2000 to 2016 and studied online physician reviews from top rating sites. Doctors were grouped into three categories: surgical, ob.gyn., and “other” specialties. Findings showed the bottom 10% of surgeons studied (those with the worst online reviews) had 150% as many claims as the average for all surgeons. Surgeons in the top 20% (doctors with the best online reviews) had roughly half of the risk of a claim, compared with the average surgeon. Similar results were found for ob.gyns. and other specialties.

“Low and behold, there’s a huge correlation,” Mr. Avondet said. “There’s no shadow of a doubt that there’s something there that predicts your malpractice risk based on how nice or mean you are in the eyes of the patient.”

Mr. Avondet said he encourages physicians to use online reviews to make improvements, thus lowering their liability.

“Look at these reviews as a lens into your practice and things you might need to correct,” he said. “Use it as [insight] for how you can improve your practice and decrease the risk of getting sued.”

agallegos@frontlinemedcom.com

On Twitter @legal_med

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