HealthApril 02, 2020

5 steps for managing negative online reviews

By: Melissa Welby, MD

"Don't ever go to see Dr. X if you want someone who cares about you. She's terrible, unfriendly and only cares about money. She charged me for an appointment even though she knew I missed because my family member just got hospitalized and had emergency surgery. Protect yourself and stay away."

The 21st century has seen many incredible advances in medicine, but it's also introduced a new and often far less pleasant factor for physicians: online reviews. When physicians receive unfair or fake reviews, they understandably feel angry and vulnerable. Some physicians suggest the solution to the problem is to stop reading them and insist that reviews don't matter. Some might claim that physicians with too many positive online reviews must prescribe a lot of controlled substances, as if a negative rating is a badge of honor that demonstrates higher ethics and the safe prescribing of benzodiazepines and opiates. However, both groups seem to miss how much physician reviews matter to patients today.

Increasingly, prospective patients are turning to websites like HealthGrades, RateMDs, Vitals and even Yelp to help them decide which doctor to see. Gone are the days when everyone who needs to see a specialist is funneled through their primary care doctor. Negative reviews happen, and even the most qualified physicians will make some people angry.

Unfortunately, many of us have been the target of fake reviews, including my colleague, who was the subject of a review similar to the one above. Sometimes negative reviews come from angry patients or disgruntled ex-employees. It's even possible that they could be the result of a coordinated attack, for example, an effort by an anti-vaxxer group seeking to destroy the credibility of physicians who advocate for vaccines. These reviews are stressful!

Physicians often feel powerless to protect themselves against unfair allegations because, unlike other industries, physicians must follow HIPAA regulations and often can't defend themselves because they would risk violating confidentiality. Because of this, it's understandable why some physicians conclude that the solution is to avoid Googling themselves, but ignorance isn't always bliss when it comes to running a practice. Negative reviews can have a real effect on your livelihood.

Luckily, physicians do have options when faced with an unfortunate negative review.

5 Ways to address negative physician reviews

A negative comment here and there may not be a big deal, but when a theme develops in your reviews, people will listen. Because of this, it's important to monitor sites where reviews of your practice appear periodically so issues can be handled right away.

So you've found a negative review of yourself. What do you do now? If you take the following steps, you'll be able to protect your online reputation.

1. Use negative reviews as opportunities for reassessment

Even if the review feels unfair, it's an opportunity to evaluate whether you need to make changes. Many reviews have nothing to do with the quality of the physician's care but are focused on wait time, billing issues or grumpy staff. Those complaints aren't about you personally, but these issues matter, and these kinds of negative reviews can serve as a wakeup call that there's a problem.

2. Flag and report online reviews that violate policy

A site may be willing to take down a review if it violates their policy. Each site has a way to flag and report reviews, and the Federal Trade Commission passed a Consumer Review Fairness Act in 2017 which gives guidelines about removing reviews. However, it's often difficult to figure out which reviews are "clearly false or misleading," and review platforms may side with the reviewer. When a review is libelous, includes profanity or is blatantly fake, there is a better chance of having it successfully removed.

If the problem becomes overwhelming, it can be good to look outside your practice for help. Because this can be a challenging and time-consuming task, reputation management companies can help physicians repair damaged online reputations. If the situation gets to a certain level, it could be worth the pretty penny they charge.

3. Respond to negative criticism

When accusations allege things like physician incompetence, it can be hard not to jump in and tell the world how it really went down. It's important to remember that any response that acknowledges the person was a patient could violate confidentiality, an issue that will make the trouble of a negative review seem minor by comparison. Whether you're crafting a response for public or private viewing, it's important to make sure you're careful about what you include.

For a behind-the-scenes response, reach out to the patient directly if you know who they are and take the time to hear about their experience. Apologize if appropriate. A patient may decide to remove the negative review if their concerns are addressed.

When you're responding publicly, frame the comment in a way that doesn't violate confidentiality. For example, you could write, "It is our sincere hope to create a welcoming environment for all our patients and provide excellent care. If we somehow missed the mark, we invite any patients to contact the office with feedback. We value every opportunity for improvement."

4. Ask patients to review you

There's nothing that makes a negative review disappear quicker than a lot of positive reviews, but it can be awkward to ask patients to write them. When patients pay you compliments or share an appreciation for the practice, encourage them to post their sentiments online, and make it easy for them by providing an instruction card or email that has links.

5. Take charge of your online presence

Physicians can increase their control over what information a patient sees by creating a robust online presence. This may ultimately be the best defense against negative reviews.

Get started by claiming your profile on each rating platform. Think of these sites as free marketing — unclaimed profiles often contain inaccurate details, making it difficult for patients to find you. Create a professional profile that includes all the information that a patient would need about your practice as well as a professional-looking photo of yourself.

You can also develop your digital presence by publishing articles online. Over time, these will rank higher in the search than review sites. Building an online presence takes time and doesn't happen overnight, but it allows physicians to take control of their brand and reputation.

Online physician reviews do matter

Despite the many negatives that come with physician review sites, it's clear that they aren't disappearing anytime soon. Practices that acknowledge the importance of an online reputation and take proactive steps to maintain theirs will quickly see the benefits.

Melissa Welby, MD
Lippincott® Medicine
Lippincott is a leading international medical publisher of professional health information for practitioners, faculty, residents, students, and healthcare institutions with a full suite of essential medical products, from books and journals to digital solutions.
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