BOCA RATON, FLA. – There’s good news and bad news when it comes to doctor-bashing websites that can destroy a reputation that has taken years to build, according to Dr. Kevin C. Smith.
The bad news is that the sites aren’t going away. The good news is that they don’t appear to be lucrative. Site views are declining, "rate the rating sites" are emerging, and laws that may help protect victims of anonymous doctor-bashing posts are evolving, Dr. Smith, a dermatologist in private practice in Niagara Falls, Ontario, said at the Annual meeting of the Florida Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery.
One site, www.ratemds.com, had a value estimation of nearly $75,000 in February 2010 but was valued at under $65,500 in February 2011 by an online resource, which showed that page views over that time period declined from about 150,000 page views/month to about 90,000/month. Three other well-known sites have current estimated values of only $10,820 (www.doctorscorecard.com), $8,447 (www.healthcarereviews.com), and $2,992 (www.mydochub.com), based on their number of page views, he said.
"These things have very little value," he said, noting that the decline in page views is likely a result of consumers becoming more savvy and knowing that in many cases "something just isn’t right" about a lot of the sites.
Sites that rate rating sites could also be useful for patients. One such website, Informed Patient Institute (www.informedpatientinstitute.org), grades sites and provides a "What we like" and "What we don’t like" section that spells out the pros and cons of a given site.
Under current U.S. law, website owners cannot be held liable for comments posted on their sites; the right to speak anonymously both in print and online is constitutionally protected free speech, Dr. Smith said.
In Canada, the rules governing online defamation differ from U.S. laws because they make no distinction between libel published in a newspaper or online. Canadian laws hold both the individual who authors the statements and the individual who arranged for its publication or republication responsible. Doctors in Canada have "unmasked people making false statements ... and caused them enormous amounts of trouble," he noted.
Furthermore, according to at least one Canadian legal expert, courts there would have jurisdiction in cases in which a libelous statement about a Canadian citizen was made on a U.S. website, he said.
He predicted that U.S. and Canadian laws will "eventually converge."
"Patients and others who post ill-considered or defamatory comments about physicians on the Internet may feel like they are ‘getting away with it’ ... but they might feel differently and use better judgment if they were aware that the laws regarding anonymous online defamation are evolving; and they may, in the not-too-distant future, be stripped of their anonymity and dragged into court to defend themselves and their online statements," he said.
Protecting Your Online Reputation
In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to protect one’s reputation and perform some damage control in the face of damaging statements made online.
In some cases, a site will remove a post upon request, particularly if there is no evidence the person who posted the comment is a patient. Dr. Smith gave an example of someone who did not like his billboard advertisement and posted a negative comment.
Dr. Clifford W. Lober of the dermatology and cutaneous surgery department at the University of South Florida, Tampa, added that in almost a third of cases, a site will agree to remove posts upon request, particularly if the person who posts a comment violates a site rule (such as using obscenities).
Using a notification system, such as Google Alerts, can also help physicians stay abreast of negative information. Steps can be taken – by using search engine optimization techniques, for example – to suppress such negative information by "burying" it under positive posts, Dr. Smith said.
By developing a deep social network, issuing press releases, and asking satisfied patients to post their own reviews, negative information can be buried; studies show that most Web users don’t look past the first few pages of an Internet search, according to Dr. Lober, who is also an attorney.
Using services such as www.drscore.com can also help. DrScore.com, a service run by a North Carolina dermatologist, does not allow anonymous posting. Instead, patients are invited to offer comments, which are sent only to the doctor, not posted online. Unhappy patients may provide useful feedback, and since they are given the opportunity to do so, they may be less likely to go to the trouble of posting comments or ratings elsewhere online, Dr. Smith said.