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The Yelp Effect: How to React to Negative Reviews

telemedicine reimbursementThe Washington Post recently ran an insightful article about medical providers responding to negative reviews on Yelp and other similar sites by revealing patient information. While we understand the instinct to tell the other side of the story, getting into the details of a patient’s care or diagnosis is obviously a no-no. So what do you do instead? Online review sites are here to stay and they are an growing part of how patients evaluate providers these days, so it is important that you have a strategy for strengthening your online reputation. Here are a few tips.

Take a Deep Breath

It is easy to take a negative review personally. It might even make you angry, especially if the patient has left out important information or distorted what happened. You may choose to respond to the review in some way (or not), but there’s no need to react immediately. Let the dust and your emotions settle before you reply at all.

Move the Matter Offline

Simply ignoring the comment is certainly an option, and probably the best one for comments that contain profanity or are truly offensive, but in most cases, it is a good idea to offer some type of reply so that potential patients will see that you care and that you are at least reading the reviews. Because HIPAA and other regulations prohibit you from publically discussing patient care or even acknowledging that someone is a patient, the best approach is to move the matter offline.

Here is an example of what you might say. “We care very much about making sure that everyone who has contact with our office has a great experience. Because we value patient privacy, we cannot comment on any specific situation online, but would love for you to contact our office at (email) or at (phone).”

This shows concern for the commenter and a willingness to address the issue without revealing any patient information at all. Readers will know that you will protect their privacy as well.

Evaluate the Complaint

According to research by ProPublica, most online complaints about medical providers are not about the medical treatment itself. They are more often about wait times, unhelpful office staff, and poor bedside manner. After the sting of getting a bad review fades, take some time to evaluate it objectively. The reviewers may be doing you a favor by pointing to things that your practice could improve. It is especially important to notice any trends in the comments.

Solve the “Denominator” Problem

The Washington Post piece quotes Jeffrey Segal, a onetime critic of review sites, who now says doctors need to embrace them, as he explains the denominator problem. “If they only have three reviews and two are negative, the denominator is the problem. …If you can figure out a way to cultivate reviews from hundreds of patients rather than a few patients, the problem is solved.”

People know that not every negative review is an exact account of what actually occurred, but if the only reviews for a provider are negative, it can be difficult for a prospective patient to ignore. The challenge is that people are far more likely to tell others about their bad experiences than their good ones. If you want your happy patients to write good reviews, you’re going to have to ask them. It is also helpful to give them something to talk about. Practices that offer unique and modern services, like video visits, can ask patients to share their experience online.

Unlike other service providers who are free to tell their side of the story if they think they have the higher ground (here’s a hilarious example), medical providers must put patient privacy first. That doesn’t mean you can’t practice active reputation management, you’ll just have to be very thoughtful about how you do it.