Last week I read an article about a New York City dentist who has sued five of his patients over poor reviews that they posted on Yelp. The dentist, Nima Dayani, DDS, currently has a 4.5 star rating on his Yelp page. But he has claimed that the “false” bad reviews have had long-term negative effects on his business and amount to defamation.
The lawsuit seems extreme, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. What I noted was the response by Yelp. Dr. Dayani’s Yelp page now has another feature – a red banner from Yelp that warns all potential reviewers that “This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers….” A spokesperson from Yelp reported that this is the third time they have posted a consumer warning like this on an organization’s page (see Yelp’s Warning: This Dentist Might Sue You For Posting A Negative Review).
To most health care provider organizations and professionals, lawsuits probably seem like an extreme reaction to a negative online review – but the other end of the spectrum, ignoring the reviews, isn’t a good tactic either. Yelp and other online review systems are growing in importance as more and more consumers make decisions about their health care based on information they find online. The prominence of sites like Yelp and Angie’s List are continuing to grow, and their presence in the health care space has grown as well.
As you may recall, last year Yelp announced a partnership with ProPublica to update its hospital listings with ProPublica research, plus data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Hospital Compare website (see Yelp Comes To Health Care – One More Reason For Online Reputation Management). As part of that partnership, Yelp provided ProPublica access to 1.7 million public reviews, from which ProPublica identified 3,500 one-star reviews (the lowest), and in which responses to complaints about medical care turned into disputes over patient privacy (see Stung By Yelp Reviews, Health Providers Spill Patient Secrets).
So what are executives of provider organizations to do? We’ve discussed the best practice approach to managing your online ratings and reviews before – see Succeeding In The Online Ratings Game. But this standard practice has some important caveats. If and how you respond online to a bad review may violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA forbids disclosing any patient health information without permission; but according to a recent ProPublica report, many health care professionals are disclosing patient information in their responses to negative reviews.
Avoiding this issue requires your organization to have a defined and consistent reputation management strategy in place – one that has clear guidelines for employees and a standard procedure for handling whatever situation arises (if “X” happens, then we do “Y”). After reading more about this issue, there are a few consistent tips for organizations that are responding to negative reviews (for more, see Responding To Negative Online Patient Reviews: 7 Tips and KKB Finance & Enjoyment Blog):
Err On The Side Of Caution With Information – This sounds simple, but if you can’t share the information, you can’t share the information. Whether that’s with another provider organization, a health information exchange (HIE), or anyone who can read a Yelp review. Any protected health information must be left off your response, even if the consumer themselves has already disclosed information in the initial review. It may be best to not directly address the consumer at all, and instead respond to reviews in a general way by discussing office policy or common practice.
Demonstrate A Commitment To Improvement – Remember that “negative feedback” does not equal “incorrect feedback.” Negative feedback usually comes from consumers who were unsatisfied with their service, and the best course of action is to listen to the feedback, and make any improvements that can be made. Acknowledge that there may be an issue and share how you are working to address it throughout the organization to improve the consumer experience for the next time they have an appointment.
Take The Discussion Off-Line – If you think that a more detailed discussion is called for (one where specific information and protected health information should be discussed), take that conversation off-line and offer to follow-up with the consumer personally. This demonstrates that you are concerned about their negative experience, but enables you to discuss it freely and ensure that the consumer is satisfied. This may not be the right response every time, but consider it as an option available to you.
Promote Positive Reviews – Part of your online marketing strategy should be to encourage positive reviews of your organization. Ensure that your organization is easy to find online and encourage your consumers to leave reviews and feedback. Additionally, take some time to respond to some positive consumer reviews by showing appreciation. In the long-run, a higher volume of positive reviews will help to cancel out the effect of any negative reviews.
In the new era of performance transparency, consumer online reviews cannot be ignored, so take the time to develop a response plan with clear guidelines to ensure that you are following all the privacy standards required by HIPAA and your state. For more on building an online strategy to help your organization beat the competition, join my colleague, Timothy Snyder, Executive Vice President, OPEN MINDS, in Gettysburg on September 20 at The 2016 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat for the discussion session, “What Is Your Digital Marketing Strategy? An Executive Guide To Taking Advantage Of Online Marketing.”