A friend of mine recently linked to an Ars Technica story that drove this point home. The author of the piece was looking for a dentist, and found one through Yelp, said to be the best in his area. When he went in for his initial appointment, he was told he had to fill out a “’mutual privacy agreement’ that asked me to transfer ownership of any public commentary I might right in the future” regarding the dentist. The dentist would not treat him unless he signed the agreement, so after a long discussion with the dentist’s office manager, he walked out the door.
I am neither a lawyer nor a medical professional, but even I can see all sorts of problems with this kind of document. Arguably, a contract like this could be said to be signed under duress, and such contracts are not legally binding. Even without the “under duress” aspect, for various reasons, courts will likely rule that the transfer of copyright was not valid. And even if it was, an online review site might be entitled to publish the review under the fair use doctrine for copyright.
So one has to ask why a doctor or dentist would insist that their patients sign such a form before treating them. As it turns out, Medical Justice supplies templates for these forms. The goal, according to their site, is to protect the doctor’s reputation. Emphasizing that “It only takes one negative Internet posting to impact your livelihood,” Medical Justice points out the harm that disgruntled patients can do to a doctor’s “good name and practice.”
Certainly, this is an understandable problem. Have you ever read the HIPAA Privacy Rule? Short for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, HIPAA’s privacy rule dictates exactly when, how, and under what circumstances medical professionals can share even the most minor medical information about a patient with anyone other than the patient. As you might expect, it is very strict, and certain revisions have even made it stricter over time. Thus, it limits the ways in which a medical professional can respond in public to criticism of the way they treated a patient.
Imagine seeing a negative, unjustified review of your company online, and not being able to answer it publicly except in the most general of terms (if at all), and you begin to get some idea of the frustration some doctors must feel. When you add in the fact that many patients actively seek out online reviews from patients before going to see a doctor, it’s understandable that doctors – sometimes accused of playing god, after all – would like to get a little more control over the situation.
It’s understandable, but addressing the issue in the way Medical Justice proposes with its form templates is a mistake. It’s a very big mistake, in fact, and if one of your medical clients is considering this approach, you’ll need to explain that to them.
Before I continue, if you haven’t read the Ars Technica article to which I linked on the previous page, I strongly recommend that you do so. It discusses the actual forms, the Medical Justice organization, the legal issues and the concerns of medical professionals in far greater detail than I can here. You may also want to check out the Doctored Reviews website for more information as to why the approach Medical Justice is taking to negative reviews is mistaken.
Taking away a patient’s right to free speech is not going to win a doctor or dentist any brownie points. If your medical client is concerned with fraudulent reviews – as the dentist discussed in Ars Technica was – the Medical Justice form would offer little protection at best. Consider that many fraudulent reviews are posted by non-patients, such as competitors, ex-spouses, and disgruntled former employees. These are people who would have never signed the form – and they can’t be bound by something they didn’t sign!
There are much more useful ways to address negative online reviews, as any SEO knows. For example, medical professionals whose patients express satisfaction with their treatment can gently suggest that they post positive reviews on sites such as Yelp. Enough positive reviews can drive down the negative ones.
Negative reviews can be tackled head-on, even within the limitations HIPAA imposes. For instance, law profession Jason Schultz, one of the creators of Doctored Reviews, notes that nothing in federal law prohibits doctors from talking in general terms about their practices and procedures. And when patients complain about such issues as parking, wait times and staff attitudes – which Doctored Reviews notes are the focus of many negative reviews – nothing constrains medical professionals from responding in the same way any other business would.
There’s an even better way to address the issue that can improve both the firm’s SEO and the loyalty of their patients. Many online review sites let businesses communicate with customers via a private message system. If you can convince your medical clients to use this mechanism, every negative review suddenly becomes an opportunity to make things right, whether it’s by providing additional information to the patient or finding some way to address their concerns. Many patients may even be willing to update their reviews once the doctor’s office attends to their issues.
The point is that constraining a patient’s freedom of speech is never the right answer. Doctors and other medical professionals are grasping at this straw because they now have to face the kind of public criticism and scrutiny that other businesses have lived with for a long time. They’re learning, perhaps later than other companies, that customer relations matter; indeed, improving a practice’s customer relations can solve many SEO-related issues, if bad reviews are a concern.
If there are only a very few less-than-perfect or negative reviews, by the way, they shouldn’t be too serious a concern. Nobody expects perfection from a business – not even from a doctor’s office. Too many glowing reviews may look suspicious to some prospective patients, in fact; a few negative reviews may make a medical professional look a little more human. At least potential patients will know that the doctor isn’t afraid of an honest review, which is exactly the opposite of the message sent by the Medical Justice templates. For the sake of the practices of your medical clients, make sure they know that SEO offers them a much better way to handle negative reviews online than a bogus form. Good luck!