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Doctors Are Risking Their Careers by Responding to Online Reviews

If a health provider even acknowledges someone as a patient online it’s against the law, but that hasn’t stopped many of them from waging verbal disputes on Yelp and other online review sites.

Yelp recently gave news site ProPublica unprecedented access to 1.3 million healthcare reviews, and what they found is not only unethical, it’s criminal.
Doctors, dentists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and other medical professionals are increasingly responding to negative online reviews from their patients, and in doing so tend to divulge details of those patients’ diagnoses and treatments. These responses often break laws, specifically the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). If a healthcare provider even acknowledges someone as a patient in an online public forum it violates HIPAA.
In partnership with ProPublica, the Washington Post reported last week on some of the illegal interactions. In one exchange, a mom posted a review about a chiropractor who allegedly led her daughter to believe she had scoliosis. After the x-rays returned negative for scoliosis, the mother complained.
The chiropractor responded: “The next day you brought your daughter back in for a verbal review of the x-rays and I informed you that the x-rays had identified some issues, but the good news was that your daughter did not have scoliosis, great news!” he wrote. “I proceeded to adjust your daughter and the adjustment went very well, as did the entire appointment; you made no mention of a ‘misdiagnosis’ or any other concern.”
It’s not uncommon for business providers to respond to negative reviews in the internet age since there’s limited oversight and accountability. Anyone can post a review under a fake name and write nearly anything. Review sites like Yelp are as successful as they are, in part, because they tend to not intercede with negative reviews, as doing so erodes public trust.
The stakes are high. Studies have shown 88 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, making reviews one of the strongest forms of content marketing out there. And while reviews are often casually written, they threaten the livelihoods of working professionals. A dangerous combination.
Restaurant reviews became popular long before the focus turned to healthcare. Restauranteurs also more frequently fight back against poor critiques. In Denver, one owner regularly unleashes verbal tirades against negative reviewers, even calling those customers foul names. It’s unsightly, but hardly illegal. It’s an aspect of online content marketing – and proprietor opinions should fall under that category – that’s not glamorous, but does carry a good deal of weight.
Yelp has guidelines for business owners to respond to negative reviews:

  • Take a deep breath, and think very carefully about what you are going to write.
  • Please be careful, if your reviewer perceives that you are being rude, condescending or disingenuous in any way, there’s a chance he or she could get angry and make the situation even worse.

Yelp does not mention HIPAA laws or libel and slander laws.

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