A Physician Review Gone Wrong

by Brett Pollard on March 24, 2011

For several years now, I have been actively involved in issues related to reputation management for physicians.  It’s an issue I’ve discussed at length with clients and offered thoughts on this blog.  Through my research, I have come across some pretty interesting examples of the challenges physicians face in a world where there are dozens of online review sites.  However, last month I stumbled across a very interesting situation where a doctor’s decision to sue the son of one of his patients for a negative review resulted in a reputation disaster.

After the lawsuit was detailed twice in a Minnesota newspaper, a local resident took action by posting a critical comment and link (screenshot below) on the social news site, Reddit.   With a user-controlled ranking system Reddit features the most popular posts to an audience generating over 1 million page visits per day.  As you might expect, negative exposure on a site like this leads to undesirable consequences.

I have no interest in offering insight into the specifics of the legal matter as my knowledge of how this all transpired is limited to the information provided in the newspaper articles.  However, the fallout from the lawsuit certainly warrants exploration.  There is something to be learned from this for those in a position to advise physicians about appropriate responses to negative reviews.  It’s necessary to have an understanding of the potential backlash if your response is not well received by the general public.  This situation also illustrates the need to have a strategy to help prevent a scenario that may lead to irreparable harm to the physician’s reputation.

Screenshot of the post on Reddit

Timeline and Consequences

June of 2010 – A doctor from Duluth, Minnesota files a lawsuit against the son of a former patient claiming the son made defamatory statements about his father’s care.   The statements were allegedly posted on a physician review site in addition to complaints lodged with the associated hospital and other third parties.  The local paper publishes an article reporting the lawsuit where the defendant’s lawyer admits his client posted the negative review but later requested successfully for it to be removed from the site.

February 2011 – The local newspaper publishes a follow up story regarding the lawsuit with an update of the legal proceedings.

March 2011 –  A regular user of the social news website, Reddit, posted a link to the story on March 21st, 2011 while suggesting the Reddit community should post poor ratings for this doctor on various physician review sites.

A simple Google search reveals this is exactly what happened.  After examining some of the top search results for the doctor’s name, it is clear the Reddit post triggered a large number of negative reviews – many of which are clearly fabricated.  The following is just a sample of what I found.

Google Place Page – Since Google pulls in reviews from various sources, my focus was only on those reviews posted through the Google Review service.  There were 33 reviews (all of which were negative) and every one was posted on March 22nd or later.

Vitals – There were a total of 39 written reviews.  32 of the reviews were posted on March 21st or later and each one was negative.

Healthgrades – There were 34 patient ratings on Healthgrades (mostly negative).  In this case, the dates of each review are not posted so it’s unclear how many of them are a result of the Reddit community response.

I’m not all that surprised by the backlash – especially considering the story gained considerable traction on Reddit.  It’s just another good example of the viral power social media possesses.  One the other hand, the situation raises some interesting questions.

  1. Will the existence of physician review sites ultimately improve the bedside manner of providers?  Given the risk of potentially harming a professional reputation, will doctors actually change the way patients are treated?  There is a solid argument it will have some impact especially if the review sites find more ways of encouraging patients to post.
  2. Should healthcare organizations be educating physicians so they can gain a better understanding of the online space?
  3. Filing a lawsuit against a patient for a negative review is a very slippery slope – even if the statements are defamatory.  What alternative actions exist for dealing with a harmful or misleading review?  This question is generic and does not imply the patient in this case made any defamatory statements.  That is for the courts to decide.
  4. Should review sites have tools in place to prevent backlash scenarios such as this?  I’m a little puzzled about the apparent lack of action on each of these sites.  If a page on their site suddenly sees a HUGE spike in activity from IP addresses all over the US (presumably the world), shouldn’t that raise a red flag?  I don’t think it’s too much to ask for review sites to examine the situation when a physician listing goes from zero reviews to 30+ reviews in 2 days – all negative.

Please respond with your feedback on this issue.  I believe the review sites have a place in healthcare, but both the review sites and the physicians need to have a better understanding of how the process can improve healthcare.  After all, this is really about the patients having access to reliable information when they are making their own healthcare decisions.

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