Fighting negative online comments can lead to bigger problems
One key consideration for physicians is to remember that if the negative information shows up anywhere on the Internet, it becomes part of the public domain and has the potential to circulate far, wide and forever.
So, is it worthwhile to respond?
Medical malpractice provider The Doctors Company (TDC) offers several tips for plastic surgeons to keep them above the fray when derogatory or defamatory information surfaces on the Internet – and out of the courtroom.
Those who find themselves the target of negative reviews or comments should:
- Avoid a war of words.
- Review it from a "patient perspective:" Can any information within help the practice to improve?
- Trust that potential, new and established patients will use their own intelligence and judgment when encountering the negative posting.
In addition, to help maintain positive relationships with patients, plastic surgeons should:
- Trust their patients - and their practice. Don't have patients sign a "gag order" preventing them from commenting about their experience. This puts a therapeutic relationship onto a potentially adversarial footing.
- Give patients a direct line to the practice through patient satisfaction surveys.
- Discuss the results in regular staff meetings and address any patient concerns.
- Consider sending a letter to new patients after their first visit, thanking them for choosing the practice and saying that you hope to see them in the future.
- Encourage satisfied patients to post their experiences as well, to help balance the reviews. (However, not from computers in your office; rather, from patients' own computers.)
Fighting defamation itself is an approach that's far from guaranteed to succeed. A Minnesota neurologist last year filed a defamation claim against a family member of an unhappy patient - the relative had posted a negative review of the physician on a third-party website. The media picked up the story, multiplying the negative aspects of the case and presenting additional facts that were not supportive of the physician's position. Ultimately, the defamation case was dismissed by the judge, who declared that "the court does not find defamatory meaning, but rather a sometimes emotional discussion of the issues."
However, a silver lining occasionally can be found in the most challenging of circumstances. In Texas, anonymous commenters and complainants led to action against a physician by the Texas Medical Board. In response, physicians in the state banded together to push passage of a law that prevents the state board from considering anonymous complaints against physicians for disciplinary actions. Other states may take the issue up as well. (Go to www.legis.state.tx.us, and enter HB 680 into the search field for Legislative Session 82-R.)
(At no cost to its members, TDC offers a service called MediGuard®, which provides defense in the case of complaint processes brought before state medical boards. For information, go to thedoctors.com/mediguard.) For information on dealing with online complaints, enter the TDC Knowledge Center at thedoctors.com.
For more information on protecting your online reputation, read the December 2011 Plastic Surgery News cover story "Don't be a sitting target when your reputation comes under fire online" – which is available to ASPS members online (log-in required) in the Publications section at plasticsurgery.org.