We have all read, relied upon or at least considered online reviews … you know, the ratings, stars or “opinions” that represent a person’s experience with a product or service. Healthcare consumers frequently use these reviews to evaluate which hospital or clinic to use and which provider to see. Job applicants also use their sites in evaluating employment opportunities. Many times the online review process will actually help, not harm, health care employers.  At other times, unfortunately, health care employers will be faced with negative online reviews.

Let’s take a hypothetical. A former employee (or patient) anonymously posts false and misleading information about one of your physicians on Vitals.com. The posts relate to allegedly disrespectful treatment of employees, poor patient care, and poor bedside manner. You investigate and confirm that these statements are not true.  But what are your options?

You certainly have the right to respond to any negative online post. For example, Glassdoor.com provides companies the opportunity to post “their side of the story.” But before you decide to react to a bad online review, we recommend that you step back and think about the following:

  • Does the post contain HIPAA-protected information, or other sensitive, confidential information? If the answer is yes, then seek legal counsel as you may have a legal obligation to take action (not just to respond to the negative review).
  • Is the post believable – that is, will it really hurt your organization? And does the post violate any laws? Many sites won’t take down posts unless you can show that there is a violation of law (i.e. release of HIPAA-protected information), or the posts are threatening (think violent) to a particular person or entity, or the like.
  • Does the post rise to the level of defamation? If the posts are clearly false statements of fact (not opinion) and are likely to harm your business reputation, then seek legal counsel – but remember, defamation claims can be long fought battles and often hard to win.

In McKee vs. Laurion, Dr. McKee sued Laurion (the son of one of his patients) for his online posts on a “rate your doctor” site. Following several years of court action, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that none of the statements posted online by the patient’s son, Laurion, regarding Dr. McKee’s care amounted to defamation. The court dismissed the defamation lawsuit altogether and Dr. McKee gained nothing from bringing the legal action.

Keeping in mind the uphill battle of a defamation lawsuit, what are some other options?

If the post does not reveal patient information or other confidential business information, does not implicate any laws and is not violent/threatening, you may want to stop and consider whether any response at all is warranted. Sometimes simply ignoring the post is the better course of action so as not to escalate the situation or draw greater attention to it.

If ignoring the post altogether seems like a bad idea – and you feel you have a good story to tell – then consider writing a neutral, objective response. While this might prompt your anonymous poster to rage on, it also might help to even the playing field and show the reading public that the poster’s statements may not be legitimate.

Or, consider options for increasing your organization’s positive online image. For example, create (and maintain) a Google Plus Account and write about all of the great things your organization does! Maintain a Facebook or LinkedIn page for the organization, providing general guidance and educational information, not medical advice, on how patients can improve their health, or feature “star” employees (with their consent of course).

Using social media as a platform to highlight your organization’s accomplishments, community involvement, and areas of expertise will hopefully leave the online public with favorable impressions of your organization while minimizing the impact of the occasional negative review.

Have you reviewed your organization’s online presence lately? It might be time to run a Google search ….