Responding to Online Reviews and Social Media Posts

This article on responding to negative online reviews was originally published in MLMIC’s Second Quarter 2021 Edition of The Scope: Medical Edition.

Authored by Martin Kaiser, a MLMIC Risk Management Consultant, and Edward Krause, a Claims Assistant Vice President with MLMIC

It goes without saying that social media is a huge part of our lives today. A Pew Research study reported that 69% of adults in America use social media on a regular basis, including 27% of people over age 55. Many “baby boomers” rely on the internet to obtain their healthcare information, including provider reviews.

Most hospitals use social media for their marketing efforts, as well as customer outreach and engagement. It is also estimated that over 90% of healthcare providers use social media for personal activities and over 65% of providers use this medium for professional reasons, including providing organizational news and details of services provided, offering patient education, and detailing the availability of community events and wellness programs.

A significant amount of interaction by the public on social media sites includes individuals looking for healthcare advice and recommendations for care, as well as information from those who have had personal experience with specific providers. These social media platforms include such familiar names as Facebook, Twitter, Angi, and Yelp, as well as healthcare-specific sites such as WebMD, VITALS, and RATEMD, with new sites seemingly appearing every day.

It should be noted that while 90% of all online reviews about the patient experience and provider care are positive, some negative reviews will be posted. What follows will help to identify and address negative comments appearing on social media websites.

Problematic Aspects of the Use of Social Media by Patients

Unfortunately, when patients and/or their families use social media platforms to voice negative comments about the provision of their healthcare, there may be problems associated with their posted messages. These may include the quality and credibility of information posted by the individual; the posting of information that may be misconstrued or taken out of context by those present on the social media site; and even the posting of inappropriate or discriminatory personal comments about you or your staff. Such posts may become a distraction to those providers who frequently visit social media sites, or even the comment section of their own website, to see what is being written about them and their practice. This “web surfing” may result in poor care or medical error.

Reacting to negative comments that are posted on a social media site may present several problems for the provider. First, a direct response via the social media platform to the author of the negative comment may confirm that the individual is a patient of the provider, thus breaching the patient’s privacy. Further, a comment in response to a negative post may be perceived as unprofessional by the patient or their family, or to prospective patients who are vetting the provider to see if they wish to become his or her patient.

It should always be remembered that the internet is truly “worldwide,” and it must be understood that any advice or information that you post on the social media platform may be read by out-of-state patients, potentially raising licensing issues if it appears that medical advice was provided in a state where the provider is not licensed.

Addressing Negative Online Reviews

Unfortunately, you cannot prevent negative posts from being written about you or your practice, and it is often difficult to have them taken down. The best practice is to continue to provide optimum care to your patients, and to respond in an appropriate manner. Most importantly, resist the urge to ignore the negative review or to retaliate. Do not engage in online arguments with the individual, as this is a direct violation of your professional boundaries. The negative concern expressed should be reviewed by you and your staff to verify if it is accurate, and then corrective actions should be taken, if applicable.

If the author of the post can be determined, you may contact that person offline to address the stated concerns. When contact is made, be sure to document the entire conversation in the patient’s medical record. A patient portal may be employed to facilitate the proper documentation of this conversation. If it becomes apparent that there is some basis for the negative comment and corrective action has taken place, the patient should be contacted and thanked for bringing their concern to the practice’s attention. You may even let them know how their concern helped the practice improve. This may even improve the patient’s image of the practice.

In the event the posted concern pertains to an untoward outcome, or if you suspect legal action is being threatened, contact the MLMIC Claims department as soon as possible. Always print and retain all patient social media posts, as patients may choose to delete their comments from the social media platform.

Risk Management Strategies for Negative Online Reviews

The development of a formal social media policy is the first step in instituting a plan to help guide you and your staff if a negative review about your practice is posted online. The following Items should be addressed in a practice’s social media plan:

• Assign a staff member to review social media sites on a regular basis for posts about your practice, and to constantly address evolving social media and technology. If your practice includes separate locations, these reviews should be conducted for each location.

• Designate a person to communicate on behalf of the practice. This person is often the risk or corporate compliance manager, practice administrator, or, in solo practices, the actual provider. • Reiterate to staff the need to maintain the same patient confidentiality online as they would in any other environment, as well as maintain appropriate boundaries in the physician-patient relationship. Never “friend” a patient in an online setting.

• If you feel you are being pressured into responding on a social media platform, limit your response to a standardized response such as one of the following:

“According to state and privacy laws, we are precluded from commenting on patient treatment. However, we are always available to discuss concerns with our patients. Patients are welcome to contact us directly.”

“In order to protect our patients’ privacy, all patient concerns and complaints are resolved directly by [name of practice] and not through social media.”

“At [name of practice], we strive for the highest levels of patient satisfaction. However, we cannot discuss specific situations due to patient privacy regulations. We encourage those with questions or concerns to contact us directly at our office.”

• All staff should be alerted to immediately report negative social media comments to practice leadership.

• Link your social media policy to other organizational policies, such as an employment agreement. A confidentiality agreement should be signed by your staff members, and they should receive documented education in patient privacy and HIPAA. A well-intentioned social media post by a staff member may trigger HIPAA concerns.

We encourage our policyholders to contact MLMIC Insurance Company’s Risk Management or Claims department with all questions on how to properly respond to a social media post.