Physician Internet Defamation: How Doctors Can Deal with False Reviews and Protect Their Reputation
By Whitney C. Gibson, internet defamation attorney at Vorys who works closely with Agnes + Day’s Crisis Intelligence Team.
Last month’s post discussed the damage that can be caused by false reviews online. The reality is that most anyone with a computer can cause very serious damage to your reputation: upset customers, ex-employees, ex-business partners, ex-spouses and more.
One particular group that false online reviews are a major threat to is physicians and other medical professionals. Physicians are particularly vulnerable to reputation attacks for a number of reasons and, unfortunately, face a difficult challenge responding to them because of HIPAA restrictions.
A note about HIPAA: The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is essentially medical privacy legislation that, for purposes of this blog, prevents physicians from discussing patients and information about their health.
Similar to other service industries, anyone can easily log onto Yelp.com or a medical-specific review website (e.g. RateMDs.com or HealthGrades.com) and say what is on their mind. There must be some motivation to go online and write a review, and oftentimes it is because a person is angry.
Various studies have shown that most doctors have only a few reviews and, as a result, they suffer from sampling bias. With such a small sample size of reviews when you look a doctor up online, and when considering the motivations of many online reviewers, false negative reviews can dominate these doctors’ reviews and damage their reputations.
According to Software Advice‘s 2013 survey of more than 4,500 U.S. patients, 62 percent of those polled used online reviews when seeking a new doctor; 19 percent, meanwhile, admitted to using reviews to evaluate their existing doctors.
With more and more people looking up doctors online, having false reviews populate a physician’s profile on various websites can cause a lot of harm. It’s important to note that these reviews must be false, and not based on fact, for the physician to be able to take legal action against them.
Combating False, Harmful Reviews and Protecting Your Reputation
To prevent or mitigate reputational damage, doctors really need a combination of legal and technical strategies.
Encourage positive reviews
First, it’s extremely beneficial to have software or a strategic plan to encourage patients to review their positive experiences online. For instance, there are programs that make it easy for your office to provide patients with a link after their appointments.
Monitor your online reputation
As a physician, you should get some sort of monitoring software – which is easy to purchase and not expensive (in fact, it’s often free). It is important to monitor your online reputation – even if you are not active on social media or other professional networking websites.
Acquire the right team
When faced with false, negative reviews, arming yourself with the right team can go an extremely long way. This team should be experienced in with the type of case you’re faced with and should have legal knowledge relating to HIPAA and defamation laws and, accordingly, offer a variety of techniques to help you negate attacks.
Some strategies to help you negate false, harmful online reviews
Reach out to the patient
If you can identify the author of a false review, you can try to contact the patient (or other individual) through the website and ask to speak with them. Simply asking them about their experience and trying to remedy the situation – or, if the review is truly false, kindly asking for it to be removed – works more often than you may think. Alternatively, the physician’s attorney can send a private message or letter demanding the posting be removed, but be careful! Make 100% sure that the review is in fact false, otherwise, sending an attorney’s letter to a legitimately unhappy patient can go a long way in further bringing you under attack.
Contact the website
You may also wish to contact the website itself and try to persuade its operators to remove the false review. But again you must be very careful not to violate HIPAA. We typically advise physicians to only provide information on general office procedures, and not anything specific about a patient or treatment of that patient.
Acquire a court order
For an egregious false post the individual or website refuses to remove, another option is bringing a lawsuit. The best practice is to get a court order that the lawsuit can be filed under seal prior to filing the complaint. Again, this eliminates the risk of violating HIPAA.
If you do not know the identity of the author of the harmful post, you can file what is known as a “John Doe” lawsuit and serve a subpoena on the website to obtain identifying information (including the Internet Protocol, or IP address). Once you obtain an IP address, you can issue a subpoena to the internet service provider in order to get the identity of the person affiliated with the IP address.
We work with a cyber investigation company that provides assistance in making it easier for patients to lawfully provide reviews, and also can monitor reputations. As legal issues arise, we can advise on how best to respond to reviews.
False online review attacks are often very damaging, so it is important to be aware of this and also the potential remedies. It is necessary for harmed doctors to act quickly to prevent or mitigate reputational damage. In the event a physician may need legal assistance, most states have short statutes of limitations for online defamation, meaning there is a small window in which a claim can be brought (usually one if not two years).
Editor’s note: If you’re faced with this type of Internet attack, feel free to get in touch with Whitney directly, or reach out to Agnes + Day and we’ll set you on the right track.
This can be a problem for any business owner, not only doctors.