Reacting to unwanted online feedback

Reacting to unwanted online feedback


Reading adverse comments on internet sites or forums can be a cause of considerable distress. But it is important to step back and resist the temptation to immediately reply angrily or defensively on web forums. An angry response may trigger further negative online feedback and lead to a formal patient complaint. 

Adverse eventsFactsheets
22 / 04 / 2016

Reviews about health professionals posted on forums on the internet are becoming an increasingly common way for patients across the world to express dissatisfaction with their health treatment.

Whereas once patients would write letters of complaint to health professionals or to a statutory complaints body, they now often go straight to social media, depriving the health professional of the opportunity to address their concerns, or correct misunderstandings about their treatment.

Unfortunately there are not a lot of effective options available at present to respond to negative comments  online,  and  in fact it is sometimes better not to respond at all so as not to aggravate the situation and escalate the negative reviews.

The options available to you if you object to comments made on the internet are:
  • To request the website in question remove any offending comment.

    It is Avant’s experience that members have had varying success with making requests for removal of material. Some websites are likely  to  comply  with  your  request to avoid any further action being taken against them. However, other websites may not agree  to  a  removal  on the basis that consumers are allowed to express their honest opinions.

    Some websites have specific policies to the effect that comments will not be taken down simply because of a request. You can make a request but it may well be rejected.

    There is also a  risk  that  by  making  such  a  request, further negative comments will follow escalating the undesirable situation.
  • To request the party making the comments withdraw them and, if appropriate, publish a retraction to any persons to whom the comments were made and/or arrange for the comments to be removed from the website.

    This is often difficult because the identity of the author is not always possible to ascertain.

    Again there is the risk that by making such a request, further negative comments will follow escalating the situation.
  • If the actions are not acceptable to you, to obtain advice about instituting defamation proceedings.

    To succeed in a defamation claim, you must establish that:
    1. The words published have a defamatory meaning or “imputation”. To be defamatory, the words must injure a person’s reputation and not merely a person’s pride or feelings.
    2. The person bringing the claim has been  identified  in the defamatory words.
    3. The defamatory words are being communicated or published to at least one other person.

    Defamation claims need to be brought within 12 months from the date of publication of the offending material.

    There are several defences that can defeat a defamation claim. These include the defence of truth (or “justification”), honest opinion, innocent dissemination and qualified privilege.

    The application of defamation to publications on the internet is complex and sometimes even writing a letter threatening defamation proceedings can be fuel to  the fire of patients and the media and result in an article indicating that you have threatened proceedings against the aggrieved patients.

    Defamation proceedings are very technical and as a result quite costly to pursue. Not all of the legal costs which may be incurred will be recovered on the successful completion of a claim. Defamation actions are popular with the media and are very likely to generate adverse publicity.
  • The final option is to ignore the comments and wait till further positive reviews move the negative  review  down the blog page and out of view of the public.

    Some practitioners have been known to engage computer specialists to assist them in posting internet entries that have the effect of moving the offending comments onto the second page when a search is performed; thereby making it more likely that  patients will not see the comments.

    It is generally advised  that  doctors  should  not  respond to the negative comments about them by posting complementary blogs. If you  do  care  needs  to  be  taken in adopting this approach as it can backfire and may fall foul of the AHPRA  guidelines  prohibiting  the  publication of testimonials.

    One of the things that professionals should do if they receive one or a series of negative comments on the internet, is to actually stop and reflect on their practice to see whether there is an element of truth in the feedback. Is  there  an issue of communication with the staff? Was somebody rude to them? Did they wait too long to be seen? Does your website create unrealistic expectations? A complaint or negative comment can be taken as an opportunity to improve the service to your patients.

Feedback on internet sites can cause distress and frustration. You can seek Avant’s advice if you are unsure how to respond.

DISCLAIMER: This topic is not comprehensive and does not constitute legal advice. You should seek legal or other professional advice before relying on any content, and practice proper clinical decision making with regard to the individual circumstances. Avant is not responsible to you or anyone else for any loss suffered in connection with the use of this information. Information is only current at the date initially published.

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