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How to Protect and Fix a Physician’s Online Reputation

October 27, 2016

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Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. ~Mark Twain

Sage advice. But what is a doctor to do in this digital age when every disgruntled patient has their own digital barrel of ink through physician review sites and social media platforms? We have found that patient complaints often share one common denominator—a breakdown in the physician-patient relationship. The best options, therefore, for protecting your online reputation should be directed at preserving, and when necessary, repairing, relationships with your patients.

When Life Hands You Lemons, Make Lemonade 

Ignoring a negative comment looks like you do not care or agree the comment is valid. Hiding or removing negative reviews is ineffective at best. The commenter may simply re-post the comment on multiple sites, pointing out your efforts to “hide the truth.” Attacking the commenter is equally dangerous and often results in more malicious or derisive comments.

What should a doctor do, then? Recognize that you have an unhappy patient. Respond to the complaint in a positive manner. And react based on a full and objective assessment of the situation.   

Recognize

Recognizing that you have an unhappy patient can be difficult when the physician and staff are feeling attacked or criticized. Such negative comments can invoke defensive reactions and fears that the physician’s reputation and practice may be seriously harmed. Despite these normal emotional reactions, the patient’s concerns must be addressed in a professional and appropriate manner. Whether the patient’s complaints are justified or not, the patient is unhappy enough to go to the effort to make his or her complaints known to the world at large. At the same time, the physician must recognize that this is only one of many patients in the practice. Most physicians have many patients who are very happy, and hopefully there are many positive reviews posted by them. While action is often prudent, it needs to be measured and appropriate to the context.

Respond Positively 

Acknowledge that the patient is not satisfied, that patient satisfaction is important, and ask to take the conversation offline to address the issue. The written response should be tailored to the specific complaint. If a patient is unhappy about waiting too long for an appointment, an appropriate response might be: “Thank you for taking the time to comment. While we try to respect each patient’s time, sometimes the number of people who need our help causes unexpected delays, especially when emergencies arise. If there is anything we can do, please give us a call at the office. Your satisfaction is important to us.” If the patient does not call, we strongly suggest the practice contact him or her. In an online environment, people will often say things they would never say face-to-face. A phone call provides a better chance of connecting with the patient and solving the problem, or at least explaining it.

Before responding, cool off. Do not post your response immediately. Let it sit overnight. And ask a trusted colleague to review it before posting. Also, be careful about HIPAA. Do not include treatment or payment information or provide patient names or identifying information in your response comment. Take that part of the discussion offline.

React Appropriately 

Sometimes patients are right. Maybe the physician was called in to deal with an emergency and was short on sleep or just having a bad day. Perhaps the physician’s bedside manner was not as good as it usually is. An explanation and an apology is usually all that it takes to resolve this situation. Maybe the payment policy for “no shows” should not be absolute and it can be waived for the mom who missed her appointment because she had to pick up her sick kid from school. Maybe the problem really is a rude front desk person and corrective action should be taken. Take this as an opportunity to evaluate the practice and improve it. If there is a real problem, the complaining patient might have prevented the loss of many other patients who did not complain, but just never returned. 
 

Sometimes patients are wrong. Nevertheless, they are still patients. Maybe they were having a bad day. Maybe they “no-showed” and don’t have a good excuse, but didn’t understand they would be charged and cannot afford it. Maybe this patient is just not the right fit for your practice and you can provide them with a referral to a colleague that might be a better fit. In resolving these issues, communication with the patient is critical. Try to understand the situation from their perspective and consider whether there is some concession you can live with. Perhaps an explanation of how “no shows” affect the practice, a one-time waiver of the fee, and a clear communication that future “no shows” without a legitimate reason will be charged to the patient. A good, long-term patient might be saved for the price of an office visit. Patients who have been heard will sometimes remove their own negative comment or, better yet, post a positive one extolling how the doctor was willing to listen, address the problem, and cares about the patients.

Sometimes patients are not patients. Although rare, we have seen situations where an ex-spouse or a competitor is suspected of posting truly false and defamatory information about a physician or a practice. Whether by a patient or not, these blatantly false and misleading statements may require more affirmative action. Contact the site administrator, inform them that the post is false and defamatory, and request that it be taken down. Many reputable sites have content standards and may remove the comment if it is clearly false and defamatory, but be prepared to submit some proof to support this request.   

Rally the Troops 

As noted above, most patients are happy with their physicians. Build a following of good patients online. Post a short blog on the practice website on a health topic of interest on a regular basis and respond to questions posted by readers. Ask patients to post reviews and provide them instructions on how to post to review sites. By doing these activities, the physician can build a positive presence and reputation online. When a negative comment does appear, it will look like an outlier and will likely provoke multiple positive responses from your fans or followers.

Reputation Repair Companies

Some companies offer to protect a physician’s reputation by selling form contracts which prohibit negative comments by patients online. These contracts are probably not enforceable, and are not the best way to develop a good physician-patient relationship or present the appropriate professional persona and could backfire. Other companies tout their ability to “bury” the bad reviews by controlling what comes up first on online searches. Precisely how this is done is not revealed. Proceed with caution, and carefully weigh the risks and benefits against the cost of such services. Posting false reviews from dummy accounts is a risky move, that if found out (and it will be found out), could cause significant harm to the physician’s reputation. Still others offer advice on how to create your own web presence and reputation. Again, weigh the costs and benefits carefully before jumping in.   

Created by MagMutual from materials provided by COPIC as part of MagMutual and COPIC’s alliance to improve patient safety and quality of care for all of our PolicyOwners.  

Disclaimer

The information provided in this resource does not constitute legal, medical or any other professional advice, nor does it establish a standard of care. This resource has been created as an aid to you in your practice. The ultimate decision on how to use the information provided rests solely with you, the PolicyOwner.

Footnotes