■ Safety of care:

Improving patient safety and reducing risks

Online physician reviews: How to manage your virtual presence, and real reputation

5 minutes

Published: April 2019

The information in this article was correct at the time of publishing

If you are a practising physician in Canada, there is a good chance you are listed on a physician rating website. Websites such as ratemds.com allow individuals to rate and write comments about their physicians and other healthcare providers. Comments can range from glowing praise and accolades, to constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement, to rants and mean-spirited attacks.

When online reviews are positive—and most are—it’s heartening to know that patients are generally satisfied with the care and service they are receiving. But when someone uses the platform to vent or make personal insults, unfounded criticisms, or other unhelpful remarks, the subjects of the comments may understandably become frustrated and upset. There may even be longer-term implications for their emotional well-being.

To make matters worse, the reviewers are typically anonymous, whereas the physicians are not. In addition, while the websites have rules requiring only truthful, non-libelous, and relevant postings by their users, they do not verify whether a review is true or false.

A physician receiving comments that are not constructive may ask, “Who would say that about me, and why?” And perhaps more importantly, “what can be done about it?”

Your online presence

While you may never have wanted a profile on a ratings website, as long as the listing is valid (i.e. the profile is that of a real, practising physician), it is not possible for you or others to remove it. That’s because physician rating websites are a form of social media where the content is generated by individual users and not created by any one entity.

You may want to consider periodically monitoring what is being said about you online or delegating this task. Monitoring will enable you to keep abreast of your online presence and, if needed, address false or misleading information. On the other hand, you may decide to ignore physician rating websites altogether; however, keep in mind that this approach won’t eliminate the sites or your profile.

Beyond monitoring, there are a few other actions you can take to help remediate the situation.

  • You may be able to correct your profile information. On some platforms (including ratemds.com), you may be able to gain some control of your online presence by “claiming” your profile. If your profile contains factually incorrect information you may choose to edit or add information about yourself and your practice.
  • You can take limited actions to correct or remove objectionable user reviews. If you disagree with a user’s review and think it should be removed, you may want to alert the ratings website company of your concern. The ratemds.com website allows you to “flag” a user review, which prompts the website company to re-review the objectionable comment. This process is aimed at addressing fake or potentially libelous reviews However, if re-approved, the objectionable review remains online.
  • You may contact the CMPA to get assistance in preparing a message asking to have the website company remove defamatory comments. The prepared message is only a request, and may not necessarily compel the website company to remove the objectionable content. In keeping with its current approach to defamation matters, the CMPA will not generally assist members with initiating a civil legal action alleging defamation against a ratings website company or an individual who has posted comments online. Alternatively, you may consider contacting your own legal counsel for advice. (Limitation periods in defamation actions may be very short; the duration may depend on the jurisdiction and the characteristics of the website in question.)
  • Avoid responding publicly to online comments. While the source of an online review may be apparent, you should never assume a specific patient wrote a review. Avoid responding quickly in anger or frustration. Posting a poorly considered response online might only escalate a situation unnecessarily or create additional medical-legal issues, such as if you breach doctor-patient confidentiality. If you feel it necessary to respond publicly to repeated critical comments, keep the response general in nature, such as steps you are taking to make patients feel more at ease to discuss their concerns in person.

Effective two-way communication

While a critical review might reflect an isolated incident, or stem from unrealistic expectations or a misunderstanding, several critical reviews might expose an area genuinely in need of improvement. Consistent with the “wisdom of the crowd,” which is the basis of social media generally, multiple reviews echoing a similar sentiment are likely to be seen as credible. Physicians might consider looking for such patterns and assessing whether there is an issue in their practice that requires closer attention.

  • Foster a positive patient experience. Many online complaints relate to medical office issues such as wait times, staff friendliness and interaction with patients, continuity of care, and so on. Similar comments from multiple patients may be indicative of a problem that needs to be addressed. It may be beneficial to review complaints with an eye to improving the patient experience.
  • Encourage an open dialogue with patients. Ideally, patients should feel comfortable discussing their concerns directly with you or your staff. While it can be difficult to communicate well with all patients, fostering an environment of honest and open communications can improve patient satisfaction and reduce the potential for negative online reviews.
  • Develop formal mechanisms to obtain patient feedback. Formal feedback or complaint mechanisms can be an effective way for you to hear from patients who may not feel comfortable discussing such issues in person. Patient satisfaction surveys can help you identify areas for improvement in your practice, but it’s also important to make reasonable efforts to act on relevant suggestions.
  • Do not try to restrict the rights of your patients to speak online. You should not ask patients to provide positive reviews or to sign agreements that they will not write negative reviews. Any attempt at restricting the rights of patients to speak is generally counterproductive to fostering a trusting doctor-patient relationship, and in any case may not be enforceable.

Physicians who have concerns or questions about online physician reviews can contact the CMPA and ask to speak with one of our physician advisors.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this learning material is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific professional medical or legal advice, nor to constitute a "standard of care" for Canadian healthcare professionals. The use of CMPA learning resources is subject to the foregoing as well as the CMPA's Terms of Use.