How to Deal with Negative Comments Online
By: Dean McConnell
Patient complaints often share one common denominator—a breakdown in the physician-patient relationship. The best options, therefore, for protecting your online reputation should be directed at repairing and preserving relationships with your patients.
Ignoring a negative comment looks like you do not care or that you agree that the comment is valid. Hiding or removing negative reviews may result in a re-post of the comment on multiple sites, pointing out your efforts to “hide the truth.” Attacking the commenter is dangerous and often results in more malicious or derisive comments.
What should a doctor do, then? Recognize that you have an unhappy patient. Respond to the complaint in a positive manner. React based on a full and objective assessment of the situation.
Recognizing that the patient is unhappy is difficult when you are feeling attacked. Negative comments invoke defensive reactions and fears that the physician’s reputation and practice may be seriously harmed. Despite these normal reactions, the patient’s concerns must be addressed in a professional and appropriate manner. Whether the patient’s complaints are justified or not, the patient is unhappy enough to make his or her complaints known to the world at large. Remember that this is only one of many patients in the practice, most of whom are very happy. While action is often prudent, it needs to be measured and appropriate to the context.
Acknowledge that the patient is not satisfied, that patient satisfaction is important, and ask to take the conversation offline to address the issue. A response should be tailored to the specific complaint. If a patient is unhappy about waiting too long, an appropriate response might be: “Thank you for taking the time to comment. While we try to respect each patient’s time, sometimes the number of people who need our help causes unexpected delays, especially when emergencies arise. If there is anything we can do, please give us a call at the office. Your satisfaction is important to us.”
If the patient does not call, contact him or her. People will often say things online that they would never say face-to-face. A phone call provides a better chance of connecting with the patient and solving the problem. Before responding, cool off. Let it sit overnight and ask a trusted colleague to review it before posting. Also, be careful about HIPAA. Do not include treatment or payment information or provide patient names or identifying information in your response.
Sometimes patients are right. Maybe the physician was just having a bad day. An explanation and an apology is usually all that it takes to resolve this situation. Maybe the payment policy for “no shows” should not be absolute and it can be waived for the mom who missed her appointment because she had to pick up her sick kid from school. Maybe the problem really is a rude front desk person and corrective action should be taken. Take this opportunity to evaluate the practice and improve it.
Sometimes patients are wrong. Nevertheless, they are still patients. Maybe they were having a bad day. Maybe this patient is just not the right fit for your practice and you can provide them with a referral to a colleague that might be a better fit. Try to understand the situation from their perspective and consider whether there is some concession you can live with. A good, long-term patient might be saved for the price of an office visit. Patients who have been heard will sometimes remove their own negative comment or, better yet, post a positive one extolling how the doctor cares about patients and was willing to listen and address the problem.
Dean McConnell, JD, is Senior Legal Counsel at COPIC, a provider of medical professional liability insurance.