The solution to pollution is dilution, which means counterbalancing negative reviews with more representative reviews,” said Jeffrey Segal, MD, a neurosurgeon and attorney, and the founder of eMerit. “The next step is to deescalate conflict if you know who the patient is – to see if the patient problem can be resolved. Typically a patient is pleasantly surprised that you took the effort to call. Because the bar is so low, it’s very easy to exceed it.”
Physicians subscribe to eMerit on a month-to-month basis, paying $100-$600 a month, depending on the practice’s needs, Dr. Segal said. He touted a greater than 90% renewal rate, and said eMerit has captured and uploaded more than 150,000 patient reviews since its inception.
For the online reputation management company Reputation.com, health care providers have become one of the its most frequent clients, said Michael Fertik, company founder. Reputation.com solicits reviews from patients after appointments and ensures their visibility on top review sites. The platform also integrates reviews from general and health care review sites to help providers address patient feedback and receive alerts when negative reviews are posted. Rates start at $50 a month.
Mr. Fertik noted that more reviews not only overtake negative posts, but they make physicians easier to find by patients.
“If you have more than 10-15 reviews, you have a higher chance of getting a new patient because the search engine is going to favor doctors that have more reviews,” he said. “Doctors that have a small number of reviews don’t exist as far as search engines are concerned.”
However, all online reputation management firms are not equal, Mr. Sacopulos warned. Some are unfamiliar with the health care space, while others are unclear on health care privacy regulations. Mr. Sacopulos learned of a company that was sending patients texts to request reviews, which was likely a privacy violation and a violation of the Telecommunications Act, he said.
““Some [companies] are much more credible, and they understand health care law more than others,” he said. “Some have the technological capabilities to do things, but don’t understand the legal environment, so you need to be very careful [about whom] you pick.”
Time to sue?
Litigation is generally the last resort to fighting unfavorable online reviews. If a doctor believes a review is unfair or defamatory, and all other efforts have been exhausted, a lawyer may be able to help, Mr. Yelkovac said.
“When someone says, ‘I want to sue,’ that’s a possibility, but that’s typically far down the road,” he said. “Lawsuits are expensive. Lawsuits have an unknown outcome, and I would say, many times when you do sue for defamation, [the poster] may or may not have a lot of money, so you may end up spending a lot of money and you don’t recover anything from the patient.”
The majority of the lawsuits Mr. Yelkovac handles related to online reviews seek to unmask the poster with the aid of subpoenas and at times computer forensics, he said. From there, doctors can decide which action to take, such as contacting the poster and asking to have the comment removed.
“Sometimes it’s a surprise,” he said. “Sometimes it’s an ex-employee. Sometimes it’s a family member, or it could potentially be a competitor. Many times it’s not even a patient, and sometimes it’s a patient [who] the doctor never thought would post a review.”
Reviews and malpractice risk
Remember that not all unfavorable reviews are necessarily negative for physicians, said Brant Avondet, founder of Searchlight Enterprises, a malpractice risk prediction and online physician ratings research company.
A pattern of reviews that express the same concerns or frustrations by patients can be used to address and change internal policies and problems, such as multiple complaints about long wait times or a crowded parking lot, he said. Perhaps the front desk staff is repeatedly unfriendly to patients. Taking steps to correct these concerns could help in the long run, Mr. Avondet said.
Searchlight Enterprises recently presented study findings about a suggested link between online ratings and legal risk for physicians at a national medical insurance conference. Mr. Avondet and his colleagues evaluated claims data for 4,000 Florida physicians from the Florida Healthcare Practitioner Data Portal from 2000 to 2016 and studied online physician reviews from top rating sites. Doctors were grouped into three categories: surgical, ob.gyn., and “other” specialties. Findings showed the bottom 10% of surgeons studied (those with the worst online reviews) had 150% as many claims as the average for all surgeons. Surgeons in the top 20% (doctors with the best online reviews) had roughly half of the risk of a claim, compared with the average surgeon. Similar results were found for ob.gyns. and other specialties.