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Legally Dumb: Should a Doctor or Dentist Sue a Patient for Bad-Mouth Comments?

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

satisfaction surveyIf a professional reputation is to be protected at all costs, should a healthcare provider file a lawsuit against a patient for a negative online review?

From time to time we see news items about doctors or dentists who threaten legal action against patients. But suing a patient for a negative comment (or comments) is likely to be a bad idea. In fact, it just might be the worst thing to do.

We can sympathize with a practitioner’s frustration and outright anger. Negative comments and online reviews can be untrue, unkind and one sided. What’s more, we’ve never met a doctor, dentist, physician, surgeon or other healthcare provider who isn’t fiercely protective of his or her personal and professional reputation.

Their reputation—real or perceived, in person or online—is the sum of everything they do. And from a physician marketing perspective, their personal and practice reputation is at the heart of their brand and branding message. It’s no wonder that healthcare providers—doctors in particular—are highly sensitive and sometimes nearly fanatical about any and all reflections on their reputation.

We’re not offering legal advice here, but we discussed the concept of online comments with our friend and noted healthcare attorney Stephen Kaufman. He told us, “Sometimes I can convince the website to pull the [offending] comment.  Sometimes, we write a reply. But I have never sued, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine a circumstance where I would recommend doing so.”

And while a lawsuit may “feel” justified, there are good reasons to reconsider the temptation for a dentist or physician to “strike back” in court. From a healthcare public relations and marketing perspective:

  • The “doctor-sues-patient” story is likely to grab much more media attention than the original patient review. A small local story can suddenly go national. It’s the PR equivalent to throwing gasoline on embers. It’s going to ignite a flash fire with an explosive downside and not much of an upside.
  • The general public is likely to identify with--and sympathize with--the patient, not the doctor. Other doctors might quietly commiserate a little, but in the larger “court of public opinion” the doctor may be seen as the villain for starting a fight.
  • The Internet Search Engines will also take notice. Any ensuing controversy about the lawsuit will itself capture high page rankings and will continue to appear in Google search results—and overshadow any positive marketing efforts—perhaps for years.
  • And then there are the legal costs, the prospect of counter claims and the drain on personal and professional time and resources.

Our comments here do not refer to the merits of any specific situation, and it’s always a good idea to seek professional legal counsel regarding your situation. Physician-rating websites and online reviews and commentary provide patients with a channel to publish their feelings—good, bad or otherwise—about physician performance.

A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found the majority of such reviews (88%) to be positive, six percent were neutral and six percent were negative.

In our experience, the concept of a healthcare provider suing a patient for an “unfriendly” review should be approached with considerable care. It’s likely to be a “legally dumb” healthcare marketing and PR move.

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