There’s no doubt that everyone’s a critique. But, thanks to the changing times and the Internet, every critique can now easily find an audience on websites that gather online reviews.

Nonetheless, what does this mean for doctors, in particular? What is the reality like when their patients turn to websites like Yelp to share their two cents about them?

Like the front-liners of every other service industry exposed to public scrutiny, doctors are concerned with being on the receiving end of negative comments as it may potentially affect their reputation.

Also, as online review websites commonly allow its users to leave comments anonymously, there is nothing stopping competitors from ‘contributing’ by guising as dissatisfied patients.

Although the culture of leaving online reviews of doctors is not as widespread in Malaysia compared to western countries, local practitioners would be wise to brace themselves for a future when this becomes commonplace. After all, regardless of the industry, criticism is a difficult pill to swallow. So why is it especially difficult on doctors?

Doctors’ lips are sealed

For starters, unlike most industries, they are not at liberty to respond to patients’ comments as they are duty bound to protect their patient’s privacy. Thus, even when doctors find that they have valid rebuttals to their patients’ comments, they cannot stand up for themselves for the sake of, ironically, those very patients. This puts doctors in a frustrating predicament that restaurants and hotels are spared from.

Doctors cannot respond to patients’ criticisms as they are duty-bound to protect their patient’s privacy.
Doctors cannot respond to patients’ criticisms as they are duty-bound to protect their patient’s privacy.

Worse still, criticisms from patients may come from a place of ignorance as they likely do not share the specialised medical knowledge that their doctors took years to acquire. As the readers of the comments themselves may include those that do not share in the education that doctors have, they may be none the wiser in trusting the negative comments at face value.

With these realities facing doctors, it is no wonder that many of them find online reviews to be unfair to them. It is akin to having a debate where one party wins by default even with poor arguments simply because his opponent’s mouth is taped shut.

Thinking of bringing a defamation suit? Think again

In response to what often feels like an unequal playing field for doctors up against their own patients, some practitioners have refused to concede that their reputations are at the mercy of online reviews and decide to take matters into their own hands. Not willing to go down without a fight, they retaliate by commencing defamation suits against their patients over their reviews.

Law and justice: Nonetheless, there are doctors who retaliate by commencing defamation suits against their patients over their reviews.
Law and justice: Nonetheless, there are doctors who retaliate by commencing defamation suits against their patients over their reviews.

Unfortunately, at least in the United States, chances of success in defamation cases are not high. Two reasons stand at the forefront.

Firstly, the law on defamation is inclined to uphold a defendant’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Secondly, plaintiffs in defamation suits must satisfy a high legal threshold. Coupled with the fact that a defending patient can be shielded with “a panoply of privileges and affirmative defenses”, it is no wonder that “only 13% of defamation plaintiffs prevail”. The odds are already against doctors before they step foot in a court house.

Hence, it may not be the best idea for doctors to sue their patients. Even those valiant enough to take their chances before a judge should be aware that “litigation may attract publicity to an otherwise unremarkable claim” which may, in a doctor’s attempt to salvage his reputation, actually do more harm than good to his name. Not to mention also that there are cost considerations as “lawyers are rarely willing to offer a contingency fee arrangement in defamation practice”. Further, it is worth bearing in mind that courts have ordered some doctors to pay their patients’ attorneys’ fees.

This is not to say that doctors should never bring defamation suits against online reviewers. However, it may be prudent to only do so as a last resort and “only after careful and realistic consideration of the case’s merits”.

Alternative solutions

Having that said, short of dragging their patients to court, what options do doctors have? Instead of being defensive about negative reviews, perhaps it is time for doctors to play their patients at their own game by coming on board to the online world It may appear counterintuitive, but Sean D. Lee points out that “savvy physicians should take advantage of these resources to deliver a message that presents their practices in the best light”. He also suggests that doctors continuously monitor their online profiles so that they may react to comments quickly and “mitigate risks of reputational harm”.

Savvy physicians should take advantage of these resources to deliver a message that presents their practices in the best light.
Savvy physicians should take advantage of these resources to deliver a message that presents their practices in the best light.

Perhaps there is even room for a philosophical solution. Accept that negative reviews are part and parcel of practicing medicine in this tech-savvy era. Trust that prospective patients can distinguish between “legitimate concerns and mere whining or spitefulness”. Finally, if there are repeated complaints about a particular practice, have the humility to consider that there may be room for improvements.

All in all, online reviews give doctors “a rare glimpse into his patients’ values and attitudes”. If considered with the right attitude, the information can become a catalyst for doctors to do better at serving their patients. When this happens, not only do patients win. Ultimately, doctors do too because, to quote Eric Goldman, “Good healthcare providers will be recognised for the quality services they provide”.

From this perspective, perhaps some good can even come out of online reviews—even negative ones. MIMS

Read more:
MLSM Medico-Legal Conference 2017: Patient-centric approaches the way forward
What to do upon receiving complaints about your healthcare staff?
Are overlapping surgeries putting patients at risk?
10 things doctors' offices need to improve patient experience

Sources:
https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1076&context=healthmatrix
http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1289&context=historical
http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1812&context=facpubs