Like most physicians, Dr. Susan Hardwick-Smith was used to receiving the occasional negative online review about her practice. But a biting post from several years ago was so wrenching that it nearly drove the Houston ob.gyn. out of medicine for good.
The patient blasted Dr. Hardwick-Smith on a popular review site about her care during a delivery and accused the doctor of attempting to force an unnecessary C-section. The account was inaccurate, but privacy laws prevented Dr. Hardwick-Smith from defending herself online or sharing details of the actual encounter, she said.
“She wrote this very detailed account of what a terrible doctor I was, and in my version of reality, I had saved her baby’s life,” said Dr. Hardwick-Smith. “I felt extremely powerless. I lost a lot of sleep over it, and I was considering giving up delivering babies. It was a real turning point for me.”
Rather than hanging up her white coat, Dr. Hardwick-Smith began working with an online reputation company – eMerit – that works to dilute negative reviews by soliciting a greater number of reviews from patients. The offensive post is now buried under hundreds of other reviews that are primarily positive, she said.
Hiring a reputation management company is one strategy for coping with negative online reviews. But cyberlaw experts stress that removing negative posts altogether is no easy feat. The best move to take often depends on the post, the patient, and the circumstance.
By now, it’s no secret that negative online reviews can significantly impact a medical practice, from influencing patient recruitment to affecting practice revenue to ruining a reputation. A 2015 survey of 2,354 consumers by search marketing firm BrightLocal found that 92% of consumers read online reviews – up from 67% in 2010 – and 40% of consumers had formed an opinion by reading just one to three reviews. Of 2,137 patients who viewed online reviews, 35% selected a physician based on positive reviews, while 37% avoided doctors with negative reviews, according to a 2014 study in JAMA (doi:10.1001/jama.2013.283194).
Reviews have become a strong force in the health care industry, said Peter Yelkovac, an online defamation attorney in Northern Indiana.
“Online reviews have really replaced the common ‘word of mouth’ that used to be the primary source for doctors referrals,” Mr. Yelkovac said in an interview. “Now, [patients] go online. Anyone can type anything they want, whether it’s truthful, untruthful, positive, indifferent, or negative.”
Doctor vs. website
In some cases, contacting a website administrator and requesting a review be removed can end the dilemma, said Michael J. Sacopulos, a medical malpractice defense attorney based in Terre Haute, Ind.
Still other sites are not as accommodating. Amazon, for instance, has immunity against content posted on the site, Mr. Sacopulos said. Under the Communications Decency Act, interactive computer services, such as a consumer review website, cannot be liable for content independently created or developed by third-party users. Such sites are hardly motivated to remove negative comments when racy posts can drive traffic to the site, he said.
Eric M. Joseph, MD, a facial plastic surgeon in West Orange, N.J., learned this lesson firsthand when he attempted to have a video removed from YouTube. A poster had uploaded copyright-protected before and after photos from Dr. Joseph’s practice onto YouTube and made disparaging comments about the patients in a video that went viral. Dr. Joseph and the patient both flagged the video for removal, but to no avail.
“It was impossible to [talk to] a human being at Google,” Dr, Joseph said. “It almost didn’t come down, and we were in conversations about suing Google. It took months and a cyberattorney who specializes in copyright infringement.”
The video finally was removed, but not before Dr. Joseph spent $6,000 in legal fees and experienced significant distress from the incident. Although most reviews about his practice are positive, he said, it’s difficult not to be affected by negative posts.
“From a psychological standpoint, it stings,” he said. “The burn of a negative review outweighs the sweetness of a positive review 100 times.”
Reputation companies to the rescue?
Like Dr. Hardwick-Smith, Dr. Joseph has utilized the online reputation management company eMerit to improve his online presence. The company gathers reviews from patients at the point of service and posts them to dominate review sites.