When patients slam you online, here’s what to do

Aug 11, 2017

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 social media platforms will have privacy policies and terms of use that outline 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 breaches their specific terms of use. You should therefore read the applicable 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.

Defamation proceedings

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.

More information

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.

Share your view

We welcome your feedback on this article – email the Editor at: editor@avant.org.au