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.
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
To succeed in a defamation claim, you must establish
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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