Everyone knows the power of the online world. One unique aspect of the internet is the immediacy it grants to all device users. 

Within seconds – and without speaking with anyone – you can reschedule an appointment, live stream a crime, call a cab, book a flight, buy or sell financial assets. You can also instantly rate and review virtually anything — including doctors.

While the immediacy of the internet can provide convenience and boost productivity it can also provide an outlet for impulsive actions, like untruthful or unfair reviews. 

No one likes getting a bad review online, least of all someone whose sole purpose is to provide care for others. Bad reviews do happen, however. They’re an unavoidable part of having a business and a public presence.

Unlike other professionals, however, physicians must take particular caution in how they deal with bad reviews, as one false move could lead to a loss of their medical license.

A Delicate Balance: Ethical and Practical Considerations of Being Proactive

Responding to negative reviews requires that you maintain a delicate balance between protecting your online reputation and adhering to your ethical and moral obligations as a licensed physician.

A physician’s primary duty of primum non nocere or “do no harm” applies just as strongly when it comes to responding to bad reviews as it does to practicing medicine. And HIPAA laws apply online every bit as much as they do offline.

Dos and Don’ts for Responding to Bad Reviews

Follow these guidelines to decide when and how to respond to bad reviews, and in so doing, improve your quality of care while avoiding HIPAA violations.

What Not to Do

  • Avoid responding right away: Take a moment to collect yourself before responding, or even deciding whether to respond at all. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Step away from the computer or phone and take a few calming breaths. Still your mind. After you’ve collected your wits, you may well decide it’s better not to bother responding at all. And, if you do decide to respond, you’ll be in a better, calmer, clearer headspace to do it, whether in a private or public forum.
  • Avoid trying to get the review deleted: You could do your online reputation more harm than good by having bad reviews deleted. Firstly, the reviewer may simply try to repost a review on the same site or even find other places to post even worse reviews out of spite. And any form of arbitration, litigation, or other costs in money, time, or effort will only shine more light on the negative review than if you had simply ignored it.
  • Avoid disclosing any patient information: Obviously, avoid mentioning a patient’s name, email address, phone number, birthdate, appointment dates or times, diagnoses, or test results. But beyond that, avoid even acknowledging that the reviewer is even a patient in your office. That means, don’t say, “We’re sorry you had a bad experience at our office.” Simply say, “Our standard policy regarding issues such as yours is…”
  • Don’t dismiss criticism: A poor may also contain accurate information. Sometimes a bad review contains even more valuable information than a good review, as it highlights areas where your services could use improvement. Rather than taking the criticism personally, learn from it and apply what you learn to improve your practice.
  • Don’t let the fear of a bad review make you avoid online reviews altogether: Rather, request patients post online reviews of you and your office. By and large, the reviews will be positive, and a large number of positive reviews can minimize the impact of any negative ones.

What to Do

  • Calm down: However hurtful it may feel in the moment, keep in mind, a single bad review alone will not ruin your reputation.
  • Consider responding offline: Perhaps the best way to deal with a dissatisfied patient is direct, one-on-one, in private. If you know who the patient is, invite them to discuss their concerns with you. That alone may calm the patient down enough for them to change, delete, or amend the review. And a calm, honest conversation about ways you could improve your services can only benefit you and the patient. Be aware, however, that this approach can have its risks. If the conversation gets contentious, or if the patient simply still feels negatively afterwards, he or she can publicize your private conversation, causing you even more bad press. Therefore, if you do approach a patient privately, do so humbly with a willingness to listen. Don’t try to argue or defend yourself against the patient’s accusations. And don’t say anything you’ll regret later.
  • If responding online, focus on standard protocols and general policies: Instead of addressing the specific complaint or precise incident described in the review, simply explain your office policy or protocol dealing with that issue or scenario. This is extremely important in avoiding any HIPAA violations.
  • Be proactive by creating your own online profile: You don’t have to wait for patients to post reviews in order to build an online reputation. You can take charge of that reputation by producing your own source of information. And because it’s your own source, it will carry the weight of authority. Once you have your own online profile with a good, recent headshot and accurate contact information, you can begin soliciting listings and ratings of your profile and practice on health-rating sites like RateMDs and HealthGrades. And if you don’t have the time to do it yourself, hire a contractor to manage your online profile for you. Just don’t give that contractor the power to respond to negative reviews on your behalf. That’s something you and only you should do for yourself, if at all.
  • Dispute false reviews: The one type of bad review you can feel empowered to fight is a false one. If a review states plainly and provably inaccurate information, you can appeal to the site that posted it to take it down.
  • Keep doing great work: Above all, continue delivering the best quality of care you know how to deliver and work to constantly improve yourself and your services. Ultimately, that’s all you can do to build a solid reputation that lasts.

By following these simple dos and don’ts for responding to bad reviews, you can do far more than merely defend your online reputation. You can gain insight into yourself and your practice and create improvements in your quality of care that benefit both you and your patients.