Thursday, April 10, 2014

Responding to Online Negative Comments

By: Josh Hyatt, Senior Risk Management Specialist at NORCAL Group of companies

With the advent of social media and online marketing outlets, physicians, healthcare practitioners and facilities are experiencing, in a new medium, a not-so-new phenomenon — bad publicity. There are many online sites that allow patients to rate their physicians on various scales, and oftentimes they can leave narratives about their experiences.

As such websites increase in popularity, so does the significance of such ratings. Many patients are using the sites to report negative comments about physicians, and physicians often feel unable to defend themselves due to HIPAA and other privacy regulations. Negative reviews can come from angry patients, disgruntled employees, and sometimes even members of the public just trying to create unsubstantiated problems.

When these attacks occur, sometimes the physician wants to go into a defensive mode to preserve both integrity and reputation. But impulsive responses may do more harm than good.

Because negative online reviews can affect a physician and his or her practice, the issue warrants a two-fold plan of action that is both proactive and reactive in nature.

Proactive Steps
• Setup your own practice web page where you can control the content and message you want to share with the community. Work with your group administrator or medical director as necessary.
• Develop a social media plan for your practice. This could include Facebook or Twitter accounts where postings can be controlled.
• Periodically check websites for yourself or your practice to identify any specific issue or trends. You may want to explore setting up online alerts that advise when comments have been posted about you as a physician.
• Ask patients to go online and rate your services. Positive ratings will help to counter balance negative comments.
• Provide a patient complaint process so disgruntled patients can receive timely resolution.

Reactive Steps
• Don’t panic.
• Do not respond immediately or impulsively. Take time to consider the comment, to reflect on why the individual felt compelled to post, and to decide if it warrants a response. Not all negative comments are worthy of your time to respond. A response may start a chain reaction of negative slurs and comments, potentially leading to litigation.
• If you feel the information is “clearly false, inappropriate and solely inflammatory, contact the (Internet) site administrator.”1 Legitimate sites have content guidelines and will probably remove information that violates them.
• If you are considering suing a reviewer, there are many potential issues you need to be aware of to avoid pitfalls and countersuits. Consult with your attorney as soon as possible before taking any steps in that direction.
• Periodically follow up with positive information about your practice on the sites. NEVER post fake consumer reviews, as this may result in significant fines and penalties.
• If you choose to respond in writing, limit the response to general information, NEVER use patient identifiers or reveal any protected health information, and do not directly or personally attack the individual posting the comment.

1. California Medical Association. CMA On-Call, Document 0822: Online Consumer Review and Rating Sites,

This article has been adapted from “Responding to Online Negative Comments,” one of 100+ risk management articles, sample forms and sample policies available online to NORCAL Mutual Insurance Company policyholders. Josh Hyatt is a Risk Management Specialist with NORCAL Group of companies, which includes NORCAL Mutual Insurance Company, Medicus Insurance Company and PMSLIC Insurance Company. Copyright 2012.

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