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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{ 4 trackbacks }

The Streisand Effect for Healthcare Marketers « Adrenaline
May 2, 2011 at 7:29 am
OPISO » Dealing with a negative online review on a physician rating site
May 3, 2011 at 7:05 am
How Doctors Can Handle Negative Online Reviews :: Turbo Social Media for Medical Professionals
May 13, 2011 at 10:38 am
Rating, Ranking & Reviewing: Everyone is a Critic « Internet & Globalization
November 19, 2011 at 4:37 am

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Simon Sikorski, M.D. Twitter @medmarketingcoe April 22, 2011 at 12:10 pm

My take on doctor review sites: if a website exists for the benefit of the public there must be fair use. Fair use does not exist on doctor review sites. Why?

They use doctors’ names and reputation to put up highly targeted ads to both physicians and general public. Is that Fair Use?

Brett Pollard April 29, 2011 at 7:58 am

Conceptually they can be a helpful resource to patients. However, I question the model of some services claiming to be a patient resource on one hand and a physician marketing opportunity on the other.

Lora Baker May 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

Wow -just checked his Google reviews. They are so obviously fake that it is hard to believe they are still posted. Unfortunately for this doctor, his choices have resulted in nationwide backlash. If any prospective patient looks him up before calling, they will clearly choose another doctor.

I recommend to our clients to work out bad reviews with the reviewer if possible – behind the scenes. If not, most potential clients understand that everyone can end up with a bad review or 2 -most people are more motivated to leave a review if they are upset. Now, Dr. David McKee has so much (fake) bad feedback out there that his reputation is in tatters. Yikes -so glad he is not my client!

Brett Pollard May 2, 2011 at 11:34 am

Thanks for the comment, Lora. That’s good advice on the “behind the scenes” strategy.

Reddit Reader May 6, 2011 at 1:42 am

Source: http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/197679/publisher_ID/36/

Judge tosses Duluth doctor’s suit against patient’s family

By Mark Stodghill, April 28, 2011

A judge threw out a lawsuit today filed by a Duluth physician who said he was defamed by a man who publicly criticized his bedside manner.

Dr. David McKee, a neurologist with Northland Neurology and Myology, alleged that Dennis Laurion of Duluth defamed him and interfered with his business by making false statements to the American Academy of Neurology, the American Neurological Association, two physicians in Duluth, the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Advisory Committee and St. Luke’s hospital, among others.

Laurion was critical of the treatment his father, Kenneth, received from McKee after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke and spending four days at St. Luke’s hospital from April 17-21 last year. Kenneth Laurion recovered from his condition. (continued…)

Brett Pollard May 6, 2011 at 7:06 am

@Reddit Reader – Thanks for the update on the case. I was forced to truncate the post (providing a link) because it was a copy/paste of the entire Grand Forks Herald article. To other readers…the case has been dismissed by the courts because “the court does not find defamatory meaning, but rather a sometimes emotional discussion of the issues”.

http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/197679/publisher_ID/36/

Reddit Reader May 19, 2011 at 1:19 am

The court order has been posted as a .pdf.

http://www.onpointnews.com/docs/Mckee-v-Laurion.pdf

Noah V July 1, 2011 at 2:00 am

The doctor has appealed the dismissal, according to
http://www.techdirt.com/blog.php?tag=defamation&edition=techdirt .

Brett Pollard July 1, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Thanks for the update

Reddit Reader September 16, 2011 at 5:09 am

Both briefs having been received, the Minnesota Court Of Appeals has scheduled David McKee MD v Dennis Laurion for a hearing by a panel of three judges. The oral hearing will be November 10, 2011, at 10:00 AM in the Sixth District Court House of Duluth.

http://macsnc.courts.state.mn.us/ctrack/view/publicCaseMaintenance.do?csNameID=71108&expandParty=Y&display=false&view=N

Reddit Reader October 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm

The above link should be:
http://macsnc.courts.state.mn.us/ctrack/view/publicCaseMaintenance.do?csNameID=71108 .

If not taken to the case, click “accept” ask for case # A111154.

Susan January 24, 2012 at 11:33 am

The Minnesota State Court of Appeals has issued an opinion
Filed January 23, 2012
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded
The interfering with business claim was dismissed as being without merit.
The patient’s son’s comments are exhaustively reviewed by the court and classified as either opinion (dismissed) or factual assertions. Since the asserted facts of the situation are for a jury to decide, on 6 picky little points the doctor is entitled to a jury trial to determine the facts. The factual assertions that are in dispute verge on opinions or beliefs, because the doctor and the patient’s son dispute what was said and/or what was meant by what was said. They thought he was a jerk, the doctor says he was joking or being friendly or didn’t see them or they don’t understand what he meant. Good example of taking things way too far and doing more damage in the process.
Good grief.

Reddit Reader February 1, 2012 at 1:13 am

Excerpted from Duluth News Tribune, January 24, 2012:

A jury should decide if six statements a Duluth man posted on rate-your-doctor websites and distributed elsewhere about a Duluth neurologist’s bedside manner were defamatory.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals, in a decision released Monday, sent back to St. Louis County District Court for trial the case of Dr. David McKee v. Dennis Laurion. District Court Judge Eric Hylden had ruled in April that McKee was not defamed by the criticism and threw out the doctor’s lawsuit, leading to the appeal.

McKee, a neurologist with Northland Neurology and Myology, filed the defamation lawsuit against the son of one of his patients in June 2010. McKee alleges that Laurion defamed him and interfered with his business by posting false statements on the internet and to various third parties, including the American Academy of Neurology, the American Neurological Association, two physicians in Duluth, the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Advisory Committee and St. Luke’s hospital, among others.

. . .

In his order throwing out the case, Hylden wrote that the alleged defamatory statements constituted opinions, true statements and statements too vague to carry defamatory meaning. He said there wasn’t enough objective information provided to justify asking a jury to decide the matter.“We were hoping to have Judge Hylden’s decision upheld by the Court of Appeals,’’ Kelly said.

. . .

Laurion was critical of the treatment his father, Kenneth, received from McKee after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke and spending four days at St. Luke’s hospital from April 17-21 of 2010.

The appellate court determined McKee’s defamation suit should proceed regarding six claims Laurion publicly made about McKee:

• That McKee told the patient he had to “spend time finding out if you were transferred or died.’’

• That McKee said, “44 percent of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option.’’

• That McKee said, “You don’t need therapy.’’

• That McKee said, “It doesn’t matter’’ that the patients gown did not cover his backside.

• That McKee left the patient’s room without talking to the patient’s family.

• That a nurse told Laurion that McKee was “a real tool.”

In an e-mail to the News Tribune, Laurion said he was dismayed by the decision. “While being sued for defamation, I have been called a passive aggressive, an oddball, a liar, a coward, a bully, a malicious person, and a zealot family member,” Laurion wrote. “I’ve been said to have run a cottage industry vendetta, writing 19 letters, and posting 108 adverse Internet postings in person or through proxies. In reality, I posted ratings at three consumer rating sites, deleted them, and never rewrote them again . . .

Read more:

Decision of Minnesota Court of Appeals
http://www.mncourts.gov/opinions/coa/current/opa111154-012312.pdf

Duluth News Tribune, January 24, 2012
http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/220804/

Case History:
http://macsnc.courts.state.mn.us/ctrack/cases/caseMaintenance.do?csNameID=71108
Ask for case # A111154, if necessary.

Susan February 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm

My husband is a top performing Cardiacsurgeon with great results.But a college of his who has been banned from operating due to disruptive behaviour is writing bad reviews of him on vitals.
How I know this is that every time he gives himself a gret review,he gives my husband a bad one.And a doctor who has nor done heart surgery for 6 months is getting great reviews and a doctor working evey day -24hrs with all his patients going home in less than 3-4 days is getting bad reviews –on VITALS -something needs to be seriously done.

Samantha Theras March 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm

This can be so frustrating to deal with. Numerous websites online are misleading and fighting bad online reviews with litigation has proven itself time and again to have the worst consequences. The results are never what you expect them to be. I’m sympathetic to some situations in where it is a legitimate review with constructive criticism although, some reviews can be and are bogus. http://searchrespect.com is a site I found to be of assistance.

Hope it helps those who need,
Sam

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