The Customer Is Always Right… or Is She? (Part II)

The Customer Is Always Right… or Is She? (Part II)

150 150 Rob Lovitt

online review, HIPAA, doctor response

So, you fire up the computer (or get a Google alert) and find yourself reading a review from a patient who’s decidedly — and vocally — unhappy with her experience with your practice. In fact, she’s furious and she’s venting her dissatisfaction on every social network and user review site she can find.

What are you going to do about it?

  • Ignore it in the hopes that the issue goes away?
  • Investigate the issue and respond accordingly?
  • Threaten to sue the reviewer for defamation?

It should go without saying that in most cases, the correct answer is b). Unless the issue is exceedingly minor or a fact-based misstatement that fits the legal definition of defamation, ignoring a bad review or taking to the courts to fight it is rarely a good idea.

“In general, responding is good,” says Jeffrey Segal, MD, JD and CEO of Medical Justice, who offers the following tips to ensure your responses protect yourself, your patients and your reputation:

Respond once and be done

Responding demonstrates that you’re listening and interested in resolving the problem but you don’t want to get drawn into an extended he-said/she-said debate. “Respond once and be done,” says Segal, “and state up front that that’s what you intend to do.”

Be empathetic

There’s no harm in saying you’re sorry about the patient’s outcome, says Segal. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry to hear you’re unhappy. We want all our patients to have a positive experience with our practice and I welcome the opportunity to regain your trust. Will you please call my office to make an appointment?”

Stick to the high road

To a doctor who wanted to rebut what he considered a poor review from a “difficult” patient, Segal would say don’t: “You’ll end up looking petty and mean-spirited. It can be a challenge to stay on the high road but long-term you’ll be better off.”

Protect PHI

If a patient complains online and includes any personally identifying information — their name, hometown or a photo, for example — any response has to be HIPAA-compliant. “You would think that if they ‘outed’ themselves, it’d be fair game but it’s not,” says Segal. You can certainly still respond but tread carefully. The key point is that you provide broad general commentary and NOT discuss specific details of the case in question.

Take it offline

Turns out not all offline channels are created equal: For the purposes of HIPAA, the phone and mail are considered secure; email is not. If you want to communicate via the latter, Segal suggests that your initial contact consist of a request to continue the conversation via the medium. “99.99% will say that’s a great idea; here’s the best address to use,” at which point, the patient’s consent should satisfy HIPAA constraints.

Ultimately, doctors who heed the above advice will find that responding to negative reviews is a net-positive approach, regardless of the medium used. On the other hand, those who are still unsure of what is and isn’t appropriate online can always “go old school.”

“If you know who they are and you think you can solve their problem, pick up the phone or write them a letter,” says Segal. “Most people will appreciate the fact that they’re being heard.”


Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including, and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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