Common sense, thick skin are key in age of online physician reviews

September 1, 2011

Most of us have had experiences of being unjustly accused of poor medical care by a person whose capabilities to make these sorts of judgments are suboptimal at best. What can be done to combat these annoying and sometimes slanderous utterances placed online?

Key Points

The dermatologist didn't prescribe sulfa derivative because of the risks and side effects and because the drug has more important uses, which could be compromised by long-term acne treatment. The dermatologist recommended isotretinoin.

The patient became incensed that he could not receive what he viewed as an effective therapy for his skin problem and stormed out of the examination room. The patient posted a "review" of the doctor on a consumer rating website, accusing the physician of being "a horrible doctor." The review is now placed for all time in the public domain, unedited and unchallenged.

What can be done to combat these annoying and sometimes slanderous utterances placed online?

Investigating impact

In the majority of online reviews, a person's practice and reputation will suffer no negative consequences. Established patients have already formed their opinions, and potential new patients usually migrate to a practice based on word-of-mouth testimonials, referrals or advertisements.

This may be a wild overgeneralization, but perhaps you are not happy when patients decide to seek your care based on online reviews from total strangers. There may be unrealistic expectation issues that could be very problematic. I have always felt uncomfortable in a professional relationship that begins by a patient informing me they sought my services because someone claimed I can cure any skin disease.

Do this, not that

The Internet is the ultimate First Amendment showcase where one can say just about anything without fear of consequences. We must become accustomed to having disgruntled patients say some nasty things about us in public. What options do you have when faced with this unpleasant circumstance? Here are a few possibilities:

1. Ignore it. Since most patients never see these reviews, the majority of negative comments result in no permanent harm. As long as you do not succumb to the temptation to "Google" yourself, life will probably go on as if there was no negative publicity.

2. Recruit family and friends to flood the website with glowing reviews. In a way, recruiting positive reviewers is an attempt to balance unfair negative comments with unfair positive ones. This seems dishonest and self-serving, but it can be tempting.

3. Many sites allow physicians to respond to reviews. By explaining your side of the encounter, there is a small chance you will convince someone to disregard the negative comments. I think this is a waste of time and will be viewed as biased.

4. Survey patients to discover your practice's strengths and weaknesses. Distribute Web addresses of review sites and ask patients to rate the physician objectively. You may get useful information about how your practice is perceived.

Online consumer reviews will continue to be an integral part of how we get information about goods and services. Having a thick skin with what unhappy patients may say about you online may soon become a part of being a successful practitioner.

Norman Levine, M.D., is a private practitioner in Tucson, Ariz.