Every doctor has to deal with unhappy patients from time to time. The proliferation of social media websites such as Facebook, Yelp and Twitter, as well as doctor-specific rating sites like Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com and RateMDs.com have allowed unhappy patients the means to seriously damage your on-line reputation, regardless of the quality of services you provide or the merits of the complaint, and can have a devastating effect on your ability to grow your practice.
In a previous post, we looked at some strategies you can use to handle reviews posted by patients who have honest, although possibly mistaken, criticisms. This post examines a far less honest, and often far more damaging type of review: a negative review, often without any basis in fact, left for the sole purpose of harming a doctor’s reputation. As search engines and review sites become both more advanced and more widespread, the harm caused by negative reviews increases exponentially.
For example, if a reviewer leaves a negative review of a practice in Phoenix, or Glendale, or Chandler, or any other specific city in the Valley, then the rating given by the negative reviewer will affect the practice’s ranking for patients searching for a practice in that specific city. Many review sites rank the top doctors within that specific city, or in some cases, from within the same zip code, as potential patients who are searching for doctors. Therefore, as search engines become more targeted, the chances of a negative review being presented to a potential patient become much higher.
Although a reviewer is entitled to express opinions, you do have recourse if he or she deliberately posts false statements about you or your practice. The following are some strategies for tackling false, damaging, or defamatory feedback on social media.
- Communicating with site where the review was posted directly.
Unfortunately, this is often unsuccessful. Typically websites will only screen for and remove reviews that contain obscene, profane, or threatening language, sexually explicit material, hate speech, involves a conflict of interest, or includes private information such as your home address.
Each website has its own policies regarding removing false or defamatory reviews. For example, Yelp will review a questionable review and may remove it if you can provide information the moderators can independently verify; however, Yelp explains that it typically does not take sides in disputes and “generally allows Yelpers to stand behind their reviews.” Google does not remove defamatory material and encourages you to resolve any disputes directly with the poster. Other sites such as healthgrades.com encourage reporting falsified surveys to their customer service department, but do not always agree to remove disputed, even blatantly defamatory material. In short, although your first step may be to check with the specific sites for their policies and filing complaints with those sites, it may not be your last.
- Responding (or not).
You should not reply to the review with an angry or emotional response of your own. Responding in this way can make you look bad to other site users and can encourage the reviewer to post further negative comments. It may also lend credence to the reviewer’s accusations. You may wish to post a gracious response responding to any legitimate concerns or to explain your office’s practices and commitment to patient satisfaction, or you may not want to respond at all, at least on the review website.
Meeting with a lawyer can help you determine whether a post is defamatory and the best course of action. The steps a lawyer may advise taking include sending a formal demand letter that the post be removed and/or filing a lawsuit.
- Pursuing legal action.
Although free speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, false speech is not protected. Arizona law protects individuals from false and defamatory statements by holding a person who publishes these statements liable when he or she knows that the statement is false and that it defames the other person. “Publication” is interpreted very broadly, and includes any oral or written communications made in the presence of another, so any review on an internet website will satisfy the publication requirement. The publication must also be false and bring the defamed person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule, or harm the defamed person’s honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation.
If the court finds in your favor and determines a publication is defamatory, you are presumed to be entitled to damages. Damages for defamation may consist of both damages due to loss of reputation and also damages for any actual financial loss. If you show that the defendant acted with malicious intent to damage you, you may also recover punitive damages. Keep in mind that the burden of proof is on you to show the court that defamation against you has occurred and to show how you have been damaged.
You can also ask for injunctive relief against the defendant. This is a remedy where a court, in addition to awarding money damages, can order the defendant to remove the defamatory post. Even without an injunction, though, most review sites will agree to remove a post once a judgment has been entered against the defendant.
- Damage control.
Whether you decide to sue or not, many of the strategies you can take to handle honest negative reviews, as outlined in our previous post, can be beneficial to lessen the impact of defamatory posts.
You should discuss with your staff methods to encourage patients to post reviews. Positive reviews will help “drown out” the defamatory comment until it can be removed. In the meantime, though, if you have been the victim of a negative online post, you may want to consult with an attorney to review your options.
 Dube v. Likins, 216 Ariz. 406, 417, 167 P.3d 93, 104 (Ct. App. 2007)
 Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 162 Ariz. 335, 341, 783 P.2d 781, 787 (1989)
 Peagler v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 114 Ariz. 309, 316, 560 P.2d 1216, 1223 (1977)
 Desert Palm Surgical Grp., P.L.C. v. Petta, 236 Ariz. 568, 578, 343 P.3d 438, 448 (Ct. App. 2015)