VITROLIC reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, where consumers rant about the rudest waiters in town or the giant cockroaches that ruined their dining experience, often raise a chuckle.
All harmless fun you might think. But what happens when anonymous online reviewers turn their attention to doctors rather than restaurants?
“I would not send my neighbour’s cat to see this man”, is what one Queensland patient wrote on www.ratemds.com, an international site that allows public rating of Australian clinicians. “Have a car accident, cut your foot off, anything is better than going to see this fool.”
Of course, there are lots of positive ratings of doctors on the site too — in fact, from a quick browse the bouquets seem to well and truly outnumber the brickbats. However, it does raise the question of what recourse doctors have when they are subjected to anonymous, and possibly unjustified, criticism in this way.
Few would probably want to go as far as a Chicago surgical practice that is currently suing Google for more than $US50 million ($A49 million) over allegedly libellous and inaccurate comments made by patients online.
According to court documents posted on file sharing website Scribd, one supposed patient libelled the practice by claiming the injectable fillers she received had caused “facial lumps”.
The same critic also alleged that one of the practice’s medical professionals, known only as “Jane Doe”, had posted fake patient reviews online that praised her own work and that of her colleagues.
Although the anonymity granted to these doctors will go some way towards protecting them from a common unintended side effect of libel suits — that of spreading the original comments to a wider audience — legal action is generally a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to protecting reputation. (Doctors posting fake patient reviews sounds like an even worse one.)
The hard truth is that there probably isn’t a lot doctors can do to protect themselves from this kind of cyber attack, apart from doing their best to ensure any criticism is undeserved.
With consumers increasingly seeking advice online for any decision, whether it’s on buying a new car or choosing an obstetrician, even the most caring and diligent doctor could face an online spray from a patient who’s unhappy with an outcome, or simply at being made to wait too long for an appointment.
It’s not all bad news, though. Consumers don’t necessarily believe everything they read online, particularly if one negative comment is accompanied by half a dozen others from satisfied patients.
Just as some contributors damn a hotel for noise levels that others label as “great vibe”, patients’ overall impressions of doctors can be influenced by a myriad of expectations and prejudices. In the opinionated, anonymous and often vicious world of modern cyberspace, savvy readers are well aware of these complex interplays.
And you couldn’t buy advertising to rival some of the reviews, such as this one for a Sydney suburban practitioner: “Excellent GP, caring and knowledgeable, gives you the time you need … wonderful, efficient nurses … magnificent office environment — very comfortable …”
No cockroaches there. In fact, it sounds like a five-star rating.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 14 November 2011