Health Professionals Risk Sanctions by Responding to Online Reviews

Two recent cases in British Columbia involving physicians breaching patient confidentiality while responding to negative online reviews have led the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia (“CPSBC”) to remind physicians to resist the temptation to respond to negative feedback on physician review sites and other forms of social media. The Canadian Medical Protective Association (“CMPA”) has also recently published an article providing advice on how to react to online reviews. Both organizations highlight that physicians should ensure that they maintain their professionalism online, review professional guidelines, and seek advice when deciding how to respond to a negative review.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario’s (“CPSO”) statement on the appropriate use of social media by physicians is also clear that physicians are expected to comply with all existing professional expectations when engaging in the use of social medial platforms and technologies – including physician review websites. Regardless of what a patient or other member of the public has said about a physician online, physicians must conduct themselves in a professional manner and in accordance with legislation, CPSO policy, and the standards of the profession.

That said, getting a negative review online can be frustrating and hurtful for physicians and can take a toll on their reputation, business, and mental health. It is only human to feel angry or upset by a negative review, and a negative review, or series of reviews, can seem especially unfair when reviews are anonymous and unverified but are nevertheless publicly accessible (and possibly considered) by a wide audience. Physician reviews can also be a venue for members of the public (who may or may not be patients of the physician) to make defamatory comments about a physician.

When faced with negative reviews, there are several steps that physicians can take to address these issues while maintaining their professional obligations:

  1. Do not respond or comment on the negative review. While it may be tempting to respond directly to a negative review, doing so can easily backfire. Once posted online, the physician’s response will be public and may be difficult or impossible to remove.
  2. Do not assume that a specific patient wrote the review and never post the identifying personal health information of a patient online. This is a breach of a physician’s professional obligation to protect the privacy and confidentiality of their patients’ information.
  3. If the content of the review is false or otherwise objectionable, contact the website or app involved and request that the post be removed. For example, the popular physician review website RateMDs’ policy is to remove posts that: are demonstrably inaccurate or out of date; make accusations of unlawful activity; are libelous; or contain vulgarity or profanity. RateMDs has a process through which objectionable reviews can be “flagged” for review and potentially removed. A lawyer can also assist in making these requests.
  4. If there are repeated negative reviews regarding a particular issue, a physician should consider whether they identify an area genuinely in need of improvement. A general response detailing how the issue will be remedied in the future may be appropriate in some circumstances, but physicians should seek advice before proceeding.

For more information regarding how to address negative online reviews, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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