These days, it is very common and quite easy for people to
comment online about any experience they have, be it a meal at a restaurant or
a holiday destination. This concept is being extended to patients rating doctors
and medical practices through a growing number of websites and social media
platforms, including through numerous online forums such as Rate MDs, ‘Truelocal’
and ‘Whitecoat’, on Google or Facebook.
It is never pleasant to read negative comments about
yourself, particularly if you think they are unfounded. Sometimes, a
negative online review is the first you know about a patient’s dissatisfaction
with you during a consultation, with the staff at your practice or some other
aspect of the care you provided. It doesn’t help that comments are often
posted online anonymously or under a pseudonym so you may not be able to
identify the person to know if they were even a patient of yours.
Generally speaking, people are free to publish what they
like, but subject always to the laws relating to privacy, defamation and, for
example, sexual discrimination and racial vilification. Most websites and
acceptable content and how to contact them if you want something removed.
If you have seen a review online criticising you or your
practice, it may be reassuring to know that recent research ( as reported in Australian
Doctor) found only about one-third of people read negative reviews online and
even fewer pay attention to them when deciding which doctor to consult.
This supports the view that it is sometimes best not to respond at all, especially
as this may aggravate the situation and escalate the negative reviews.
Responding to the comments
If you did want to respond to the post itself, a comment in
very general terms is the best approach. This should be limited to
something along the lines of that you do not consider that the comments are
accurate, and that any concerns regarding services provided should be addressed
directly with the practice or its practitioners. It is important you
don’t inadvertently breach the patient’s confidentiality when responding.
It is ultimately an individual matter to decide how you wish
to respond and it is important to ensure you do so within the boundaries of
your professional obligations. These include the advertising restrictions
for medical practitioners, including that it is the practitioner’s or
practice’s responsibility to control the content of any online presence and
prohibits testimonials. This applies even if you were not responsible for
the initial posting of the information or testimonial.
It also means that review functions on any website or page
that you operate or control should be disabled. Sometimes this can be
done only when the page is first set up, so you may need to disable or delete
the original page and set up a new one. These same advertising
regulations prevent you from actively encouraging other patients to post
positive reviews to boost your online rating, as this would be a direct breach
of the advertising laws.
Some websites allow reviews to be posted on pages which are not
controlled by you, such as the Google Maps page. For these sites, other
options include requesting a website operator to remove any offending comments,
or asking the party making the comments to withdraw those comments and possibly
publish or post a retraction.
Removal of comments
The response of website owners asked to remove a comment varies
but most will usually only remove it if they accept that it is defamatory, or otherwise
terms carefully and then, if appropriate, you can contact the site and ask them
to take down the review on the basis that it is misleading and unfairly
critical or untrue.
In our experience, doctors have varying success with these
types of requests, with some websites declining to remove negative comments on
the basis that the patients are allowed to express their opinions.
If you wanted to ask the person commenting to remove the
comment or post a retraction, you would of course need to be able to identify
them first. If you can, it is always best to contact the person directly
(rather than through comments on the review site) to make this request and use
it as an opportunity to address their concerns if possible.
If the actions taken are not acceptable to you, the
remaining option is to consider instituting defamation proceedings. The
law in this area is complex and it is advisable to obtain prompt advice from a
defamation lawyer as time limits apply to bringing a defamation action.
This article was first published in Medical
Observer. Read the original article here.
What does your policy cover?
If you have been defamed by your patient or anyone who is not a healthcare professional, Avant can help you pursue a case of defamation against them. Under Avant’s Practitioner Indemnity Insurance Policy,* members are covered for up to $150,000 for legal costs to pursue the matter, subject to a $20,000 deductible.
*IMPORTANT: Professional indemnity insurance products are issued by Avant Insurance Limited, ABN 82 003 707 471, AFSL 238 765. The information provided here is general advice only. You should consider the appropriateness of the advice having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs before deciding to purchase or continuing to hold a policy with us. For full details including the terms, conditions, and exclusions that apply, please read and consider the policy wording and PDS, which is available at avant.org.au or by contacting us on 1800 128 268.
If you require advice on your
obligations around online reviews, visit our website or call our
Medico-legal Advisory Service (MLAS); for expert advice, 24/7 in emergencies on
1800 128 268. You can also read AHPRA’s Advertising: Strategy, legislation and guidelines.
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