Consumers trust online reviews.

Research has shown again and again that patients rely on reviews when making critical healthcare decisions. And unfortunately, negative reviews come with the territory. They’re a reality for every 21st-century business – and healthcare providers are no exception.

This puts doctors in a difficult position. Patients aren’t always well-equipped to judge their provider’s service – and regulations protecting health information (e.g. HIPAA) can make it impossible for doctors to respond publicly to negative comments.

Here’s the good news: Negative reviews are inevitable, but they don’t have to be a serious problem for your practice. By following best practices, avoiding common mistakes, and cultivating a vibrant online presence, you can make negative feedback a harmless, low-maintenance aspect of your work – and possibly even reap some long-term benefits. Here are four critical steps:‍

1. Stay tuned in

It’s probably easier than you think to stay aware of what patients are saying about you. Start by setting up a Google Alert for your professional name and the name of your practice. This tells Google to shoot you an update email (daily, weekly, or in real-time) when content about you is published on the web.

It can also be helpful to claim some of your free online profiles. Even if you don’t sign up for services like Yelp, Healthgrades, and Vitals, they may create a page for your practice that any patient can comment on. Most of these sites will allow you to ‘claim’ your profile – meaning you provide them with up-to-date information. This allows you to easily monitor and respond to reviews. Publishing accurate info and recent photographs also protects you from mistaken identity – when you receive negative feedback that was intended for another doctor.

If you do claim your profiles, be sure any content is well-written and that your photographs are professional-quality. It’s worth going the extra mile to make your brand consistent and patient-friendly.

However you choose to monitor your reputation, don’t let it become a low-priority administrative task that falls through the cracks. Consider setting up a recurring calendar alert to look through your reviews and deal with them as you deem appropriate.‍

2. Take a deep breath

Let’s say you’ve just found a scathing writeup of your practice. This is a very distressing moment – especially if the review is factually inaccurate or personally insulting. But as upsetting as this may be, it’s absolutely vital that you don’t dash off a hasty or irate reply.

Last year, the online journal ProPublica documented thousands of potential HIPAA breaches on Yelp resulting from patient-doctor disputes. PHI infractions are more serious than a one-star rating; they can jeopardize the financial stability of an entire practice. Avoid these high-stakes altercations by resolving to wait 24 hours before responding to a negative review. If you find yourself taking reviews too personally, consider delegating replies to a well-trained staff member.

Stepping away and taking a deep breath also gives you a chance to ponder whether anything can be learned from the review. Even if the patient’s tone is unhelpful, they may have a legitimate grievance. In fact, they might be flagging an issue that other patients have been reluctant to discuss. Think of it as a free focus group, and you might find ways to improve your practice.

If you’re still struggling to keep perspective, just remember: the internet is a harsh place. Everything gets negative reviews, including the Grand Canyon and the work of William Shakespeare. A few bad comments won’t destroy your reputation. They may even carry some valuable information. That leads to our next point…‍

3. Engage (or don’t)

First, remember: You don’t have to respond to a negative review. Sometimes, it may be best to let it slide rather than draw more attention to it. There’s no right answer here, so just be consistent in your approach.

If you do respond:

  • Acknowledge the complaint in an authentic and professional tone, without getting defensive. A thoughtful, empathetic response signals to other patients that you’re trustworthy and accountable. Example: “We’re so sorry your experience with our practice wasn’t a good one.”
  • Take it offline as quickly as possible. Online discussion tend to escalate quickly. If the patient calls your office and you reach a positive resolution, they might be willing update their review. Example: “Please give us a call so we can understand what happened and get things straightened out.”
  • Triple-check everything you publish for HIPAA-compliance. Generally, this means you’ll speak in broad terms about your practice’s policies rather than discussing individual details of a patient’s treatment. Example: “It’s our policy to make sure every patient receives attentive, individualized care.”‍ 

4. Embrace the wave

As we discussed above, negative reviews are unavoidable. But after you’ve listened and learned, why not try to get them deleted?

Most review sites do give you a way to report false reviews. And if comments about you are truly and blatantly fraudulent, you might be able to get them taken down. But it’ll take a lot of work – and frankly, it’s still a losing game in the long haul. If someone really wants to badmouth you on the web, they’ll find a way. Trying to silence them can even worsen the situation. (This is called the Streisand Effect.)

So instead of trying to suppress a bad review, balance it out with good ones. Remember that most of your patients are probably happy – it’s the outliers who end up venting online. That’s why you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for web feedback. Make it simple for patients to find your profiles by sending them a polite email or postcard. If you show patients how important their comments are, the enthusiasm of their response might surprise you.

Just make sure you play by the rules! Inventing positive ratings violates some review sites’ Terms of Service – and padding out your own reviews can even be illegal.

The bottom line

Negative reviews are a fact of life, but a few won’t hurt your practice. If you actively monitor your online reputation, write thoughtful and accountable replies, and focus on building positive patient feedback, your practice will be stronger for it.

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