Would You Sign Away Your Ability to Write Doctor Reviews?

MakenzieR on 13 Apr 2011 at 12:00am

You walk into a restaurant and before you sit down, you’re asked to sign a contract saying you agree to not write any online reviews about them. Do you stay, or walk out the door? What if it was a hotel? Your hairstylist?

What if it was your doctor?

DoctoredReviews.com launched this morning to educate consumers about the use of these contracts in medical offices. According to the DoctoredReviews homepage:

We call them “anti-review contracts”— that either expressly prohibit patients’ online reviews or permit patients to post online reviews only so long as doctors can remove them whenever they want. In exchange for these restrictions, the contracts promise patients purportedly greater privacy. However, this privacy promise is illusory, and the restrictions these contracts impose on online reviews are a bad deal for patients—and everyone else.

We asked Eric Goldman, a DoctoredReviews founder and Associate Professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, why he’s so passionate about educating patients and doctors on the downside of these contracts.

Doctored Reviews is a website for doctor review contracts by Medical Justice

Goldman points out that it's in both the doctor and patients best interest to stay away from review contracts. “The doctors are starting off their relationship with patients without any trust,” he says. “Basically, doctors are saying to patients: ‘Trust us to render competent and professional medical care, but we don't trust you to tell the truth about us.’ If the contract undermines the doctor-patient trust relationship, the quality of medical care will suffer.”

While DoctoredReviews states that it isn't taking sides between physician and patient--they argue for free speech and ethical medical care--there is a reality that reviews are a risk to a medical practice. Physicians cite phony or inaccurate reviews as a form of reputation attack where they have no viable means to mount a defense. A sign of the significance of this matter is that every national medical meeting for plastic surgeons includes education sessions dedicated to defending a practice from hostile online postings, ranging for patients who set up negative blogs to anonymous people posting online reviews.

Goldman sees a world in which doctors can still maintain thriving practices, regardless of the presence of negative reviews or patient rants.  His tips for doctors include:

  • Listen carefully to the feedback you’re getting. There may be legitimate problems in the practice that need to be fixed.
  • Encourage all patients to write reviews so there are more patient perspectives – and it’s not just the angry who rush online to tell the world.
  • Don’t overreact to any single negative review because 1) Consumers are smart enough to discard the outlier reviews. 2) Having 100% glowing reviews may look fake. 
  • If a review is truly problematic or libelous “doctors should consider responding to the review on the spot (not disclosing patient confidential information, but there are ways to respond without doing so) or, in the most egregious cases, bringing a lawsuit against the patient.”

Medical Justice is a service that arms doctors with contracts which provide the doctors with rights to a patient's online postings. They claim to have over 1,000 US doctors using their contracts.

We asked their CEO Dr. Jeffrey Segal how they respond to criticism about the contracts being anti-free speech and doctor-patient trust. He said "We regularly counsel our doctors to enforce the agreements sparingly, if at all. We believe feedback is useful for the doctor. If a doctor removes all negative posts, as opposed to only those that are fictional or fraudulent, then all he/she will have is 100% positive posts. The public at large knows that no person can make 100% of people happy. So, a profile with 100% glowing comments may be received as lacking credibility...While there may be near term benefit from that strategy,we believe that long term removal all negative posts makes little sense."

If doctors are encouraged not to enforce the contracts, what's the purpose? "The agreements are the only way to reasonably address fictional or fraudulent posts," said Segal. "The doctor asks all patients to sign the agreement. Posts by competitors and ex-spouses are not labeled 'competitor' or 'ex-spouse.' They are labeled as someone posing as a patient...The default assumption is that a person representing themselves as a patient has signed an agreement."

At RealSelf, we’ve yet to receive any breach notifications from doctors--but we do receive mails from patients who have posted and are interested in removing their material from RealSelf. In these cases, they reference that the doctor is threatening to sue them based on violating an agreement they entered from the onset. We have no insight into whether these were Medical Justice contracts or another form of agreement that a doctor developed with their attorney.

Have you ever signed a contract that relates to you posting a review of a doctor?  Are you a doctor who requires patients to sign a review contract? Please share your thoughts.

Lead photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer on Flickr.com