Sunday, June 12, 2011

Online Criticisms Of Physicians...Lawsuits Are Not The Answer

It's a brave new Internet world. There are scads of online ratings services that now allow you to rate and discuss your interactions with professionals, including doctors. One Minnesota doctor, who did not appreciate a scathing summary of his interaction with a patient, took the drastic step of suing the reviewer (the patient's son) for defamation.

A Minnesota judge who heard the case tossed it out, however, ruling that the reviewer's comments were opinions that were protected by the constitutional right of free speech:

In modern society, there needs to be some give and take, some ability for parties to air their differences. Today, those disagreements may take place on various Internet sources. Because the medium has changed, however, does not make statements of this kind any more or less defamatory.

First Amendment free speech considerations aside, as a practical matter, all this lawsuit did was bring more attention and negative publicity to the online review, and now this physician may be seen as someone who is not opposed to suing his own patients. The old adage "if you're in a hole, stop digging it deeper" applies here to playing the lawsuit card.

Because of the advent of online rating services and reviews, a cottage industry of "web defamation prevention" companies have sprung up. These companies offer "online management" strategies and "agreements" that patients sign promising not to post any review or comment about the physician. This raises the issue of whether positive online reviews of a physician can even be trusted as genuine, or are part of a strategy to elicit only favorable comments.

One the one hand, I can sympathize with any professional who is the target of a scathing, anonymous, online review. It may well be unwarrented, or done for vindictive purposes. But what is worse: resorting to a public lawsuit, or forcing patients to sign gag agreements as a pre-condition to receiving medical treatment? What kind of distrust does that foster in the physician-patient before you as a patient ever make it into the examining room?

On the other hand, a negative review might serve as a reality check if the professional's bedside manner or client communication skills are suspect or lacking. Lawsuits and secrecy agreements aside, the best antibiotic against a bad online review is an old prescription: take the time to be pleasant and thorough with patients or clients, and show some empathy for their worries at a difficult time. Treating people the way you'd want to be treated if you were in their shoes is the best any professional can do. And if a bad online review surfaces that does not accurately portray who you are as a professional, it seems to me that many satisfied patients or clients will agree in a heartbeat to post their positive exeriences with you.

In a world full of comment boxes and tweets, sometimes we make things way too complicated than they need to be.

No comments: