Should doctors be able to sue over negative reviews?

In handful of cases, rulings have been mixed

Topics: Patient Experience, Quality, Performance Improvement, Access to Care, Appropriateness

April 1, 2013

The rise of consumer-driven websites like Angie's List and Yelp have allowed thousands of patients to write critical comments about their physicians—and some physicians are fighting back in court, the Boston Globe reports.

According to the Digital Media Project at Harvard University, there have been at least seven lawsuits filed against patients and others for online comments in the past five years. However, the outcomes have varied considerably.

  • In one case, a neurosurgeon who sued a patient for negative reviews—which included comments that the surgeon "posed an unusually high risk of death to patients," the Globe notes—was ordered to pay $50,000 in legal fees, after the judge found the patient was exercising free speech rights.
  • In several other cases, patients took down their comments after facing the threat of legal action. The Globe examines one such case in Boston, where a doctor filed a $100,000 lawsuit against a critical blogger, who is the husband of a former patient who passed away. The man has since taken down his blog post, but the lawsuit still stands.        

In order to win at court, doctors generally need to prove that a patient's statements are false and have hurt the doctor's reputation, says Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.

Potential drawbacks of allowing online comments

An emerging batch of websites offer services intended to either dispute negative online ratings or help doctors prevent them in the first place. For example, physicians can purchase contracts from MedicalJustice.com that prohibit patients from writing negative reviews—if the patient agrees to sign the contract, that is.

Meanwhile, websites and blog posts can present an inaccurate picture of doctors because patients are more likely to share critical comments rather than post praise, according to Dr. Richard Aghababian, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

The possibility of negative reviews also creates a chilling effect on patient care, he added. "We don’t want to discourage [doctors] from taking on really tough cases because they don't want to ruin their ratings" (Kowalczyk, Globe, 3/30).

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