Responding to Incorrect or Insulting Comments on Websites

Background

There are several different websites designed to encourage patients to evaluate their medical providers.  Some of these sites are designed around a Likert-scale survey which asks opinion questions, such as whether the patient felt the physician spent enough time with the patient or listened to the patient’s concerns.  Others allow anonymous posters to leave open-ended comments.  There are many reasons to be wary of such websites.  Comments are often left anonymously by people that may not even be patients of the physicians they rate.  Even if the commenter is a patient, the patient’s frustration over his or her poor health may be directed at a physician who is in fact providing high-quality care in very difficult circumstances.  Finally, sites such as these often have too few reviews to accurately represent the average patient experience provided by a physician.  In response, physicians sometimes ask OLA to assist them in having inaccurate comments corrected or removed.  In most cases, however, there is little we can do.

What laws apply to websites rating physicians?

Federal law protects service providers of such websites which provide the tools for other people to post content that they, the third parties, create.  Because the website creators or hosts do not actually create a substantial portion of the information on their site, they are immune from liability in most cases.  The exceptions to this rule are mostly applicable to situations in which the content violates criminal law.

Should I reply to inaccurate comments about me or request of the website host that they be removed?

Some of these websites allow for responses to patients’ comments, but doing so may be similarly ineffective.  Without knowing who the commenter is, you may be unable to respond in a meaningful way that will counteract the effects of a negative review.  Even if you do know the identity of the commenter, you must be careful not to reveal any confidential patient information.  These websites will likely not remove comments on the basis of a physician’s assertions that they are inaccurate or offensive.  Some websites’ terms of use indicate that they will delete multiple posts from the same user.  In that case, a physician could flag comments which are clearly duplicitous.

If I think I know who the patient is, should I contact the patient directly to request that the patient correct or remove his or her post?

With these websites sufficiently protected by law from inaccurate posts, physicians sometimes ask whether they should approach the commenters themselves to request that content be corrected or removed.  This is often not an advisable strategy.  As noted, commenters are typically anonymous and while a physician may think s/he can deduce the patient’s identity, there is usually no way to know for sure.  Although a court may, under limited circumstances, compel disclosure of an anonymous poster’s identity, doing so requires filing a lawsuit.  Such a suit is public, and may attract attention to the website which it otherwise would not have received.  Additionally, the difficulty in prevailing in such suit is great, as described below.  Stated simply, the negative publicity and high costs generated by a lawsuit usually outweigh the benefit of removing a single comment.

What about filing a defamation action against an identifiable patient?

Under Wisconsin law, defamatory statements are those which are more than simply unpleasant or offensive.  They must expose a person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation or disgrace in society or in his or her business.  Opinion is not considered defamatory, and truth is a defense to defamation.  For these reasons, unless the statements at issue are extreme, it is exceedingly difficult to prevail in a defamation action.  Additionally, being a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit is extremely stressful given the adversarial and slow-moving nature of the legal process.

So what can I do about inaccurate or offensive comments?

Though it may be unsatisfying in the short term, the best advice that we can give regarding negative comments on these websites sites is to simply ignore them and continue providing high-quality care to every patient you treat.  Public statistics indicate that relatively few people use even the more popular of these sites and those that do generally don’t spend much time on them.  As a result, patients are likely not being deterred from seeing our physicians as a result of these sites.  Litigation between a physician and an “aggrieved” patient is more likely to create a negative view of the physician than a few inaccurate or offensive comments on a website.  While these comments may feel like an attack on your professional reputation, fighting back may do much more harm than good.