The dangers of online reviews - and what to do about them

March 25, 2019

Don’t feel attacked by negative online reviews or strung out by false reviews. Learn what your legal options are, then fight back.

Lately, I have been contacted by several medical practices complaining about negative reviews and comments being posted on Google, Yelp, and other physician review sites. This is an ongoing frustration for physicians whose reputations can be greatly damaged by such false reviews.

Read more: Online defamation can hurt your medical practice reputation

One concern with social media and online review sites is that they do not require verification of someone’s identity or even a valid email account. Another concern is the lack of confirmation that the poster is, in fact, a patient of the practice. Some sites allow you to self-verify, so anyone - from a competitor to disgruntled employee - can write a review. Unfortunately, some sites are also unresponsive to complaints of reviews that contain misinformation or false information.

I am currently representing a client in a case where it appears very likely that the posters are being paid by a competitor to post false negative reviews. We suspect this because:

  • multiple negative reviews of the practice appear on the same date or close in time by different individual posters

  • the posters’ names do not match any name in the practice’s records

  • the posters describe events the practice has no record of or seem incredibly farfetched or unlikely to have occurred

  • the same person negatively reviews multiple practice locations, in contrast to the fact that most patients only go to one location

  • multiple reviews on the same date or close in time reference and misspell the doctor’s name in the same way

  • the posters have never existed or posted before, or they appear to have only reviewed businesses in other states

  • many or all the posters post positive reviews for the same competitor in the local area.

In this example, it may be possible to remove the postings. Most are posted on Google, and the company is usually receptive to complaints about false reviews, particularly negative ones. However, medical practices aren’t always so lucky.

In another case, a patient with a vendetta appears to be stalking a practice. The patient has posted hundreds of negative reviews almost daily basis for close to a year. The reviews contain many allegations about the physician, the practice, and staff. It’s not difficult to deduce the same person has posted them. Because the practice knows who the patient is, the practice may be have additional legal recourse.

Physicians often feel personally attacked and helpless when such reviews occur. There are steps you can take. It’s best to seek legal advice to learn what your options are.

Remember: Even if reviews are penned by non-patients, unless the review contains lies or misstatements of fact, it can be very difficult to prove defamation. One-star reviews that say nothing about the practice can be even more challenging to remove. Worse, most sites are hesitant to take any action when only an opinion is being shared, even if the opinion and poster are completely fabricated.

Practices and physicians must be careful if they respond to postings, as identifying someone as a patient may introduce HIPAA issues. An invitation for  posters to “Please call to the practice to discuss your patient experience” might be the safest course of action if you feel a response is necessary.

The good news is that positive reviews can quickly bury the negative ones. If you aren’t already encouraging satisfied patients to write reviews, consider putting up signs or adding that to any kind of follow-up communications.

Ericka L. Adler has practiced in the area of regulatory and transactional healthcare law for more than 20 years. She represents physicians and other healthcare providers across the country in their day-to-day legal needs, including contract negotiations, sale transactions, and complex joint ventures. She also works with providers on a wide variety of compliance issues such as Stark Law, Anti-Kickback Statute, and HIPAA. Ericka has been writing for Physicians Practice since 2011.