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Responding to Negative Online Patient Reviews: 7 Tips

Responding to Negative Online Patient Reviews: 7 Tips

When you read a negative review of your medical skills or professional practice, your first instinct may be to fire back a response. You want to explain that the patient misstated the facts, she misinterpreted your explanation of a diagnosis, or exaggerated how your staff treated her.

Some physician review websites allow you to respond to an online review. For example, on RateMDs, you may reply to any of your reviews. However, on other sites, the response is not as prominently displayed as the initial review or may require the user to click on a separate button to view the responses.

As a general matter, I advise clients to respond online to negative reviews. Responding online shows prospective patients that you acknowledge criticism of your practice and that you are proactive in improving your patient's experience in your practice. Plus, if the negative review is completely at odds with other positive reviews, you may be able to explain why this patient had such a negative experience.

Here are seven tips for responding online to negative reviews:

1. Follow HIPAA. The medical profession is uniquely hampered in its ability to respond to online reviews because of patient privacy laws. You simply cannot disclose any protected health information in your response, because the patient has not given you consent to do so. The fact that the patient may have disclosed private information in his initial review does not give you permission to do the same in response. Given the seriousness of this concern, it is always better to err on the side of saying too little than too much. The fines associated with HIPAA or state privacy law violations may deter you from responding at all.

2. Be careful responding to anonymous reviews. The anonymity of some online reviews can make it difficult — or impossible — to respond. The review websites will not disclose the reviewer's true identity to you. If you do not know with absolute certainty who posted the negative review, then do not respond with any remarks specific to that patient. You do not want to risk responding to the wrong patient.

3. Keep the response short and polite. There's no reason to post a lengthy response. It will only look defensive to other patients. One way to promote a polite review is to avoid responding in anger. If you read a negative review, go ahead and draft your "dream" response. Then wait one day or two days, then re-read your draft response before posting it. It is also a good idea to enlist a trusted friend or family member to review your response and provide feedback about how the review sounds to a disinterested observer.

4. Show a commitment to improvement. Although review websites frustrate doctors to no end, keep in mind that they are one of the few methods by which you can get honest feedback. Your response to negative reviews will be most effective if they demonstrate that you want to improve your practice in response to fair criticism.

5. Invite the patient to contact you off-line. In your response, you can invite the patient to call you to discuss the problem and devise a solution together. It may not work with this particular patient, but it demonstrates to anyone who reads the negative review that you are willing to formulate a reasonable solution to patient concerns.

6. Do not defame anyone in your response. I once represented a client in the construction industry who had been defamed on Yelp. He had completed several small construction projects at a former schoolmate's home but she refused to pay him anything. Then she posted negative reviews on Yelp, accusing him of stealing jewelry and trespassing on her property. He responded to her review online and stated "If theft was made, it was her stealing money and services from me," among other explanations of what had happened. Although at trial we prevailed on our defamation claims against the customer, my client was also found to have defamed his customer in his online response. If you do choose to post a reply, keep this risk in mind.

7. Avoid apologies in some situations. There are times when a simple apology works well. For example, if the patient complains that your office always runs 15 minutes behind schedule, you could apologize and explain that because you try not to rush patients during examinations, sometimes patients have short wait times. However, there are times when you have to avoid an apology. For example, if the review accuses you of malpractice or other wrongdoing, an apology may not be the right approach given the possible legal liabilities at play.

 
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