Every doctor has a visceral reaction to negative online reviews. In many cases, the reviews are not even from a patient they treated, but rather a “potential” patient who used the internet to rant about an office with long wait times that does not take their insurance. This is a typical story.
What strikes at the heart of our collective frustration is the unbalanced nature of review websites. Patients (or “potential” patients) have no restrictions or verification requirements for what they can say online, yet doctors are bound by legal and ethical rules that limit their response. The result is a medical community highly resentful and angry with online physician rating sites. I’m looking at you, Healthgrades, Vitals, Yelp, and Google.
I would like to offer a new perspective. I took control of my online reviews and completely alleviated my anxiety, fear, and angst associated with those pesky one-star reviews. We all know that no doctor can please every patient, and online physician ratings are here to stay. Yet I’m not aware of a single medical school or residency program that teaches about how to deal with disgruntled patients and negative reviews — so I’m offering a simple primer. Just like with disease, avoiding the ill effects of negative reviews requires preventive measures, prophylactic treatment, general intervention, and directed intervention (when appropriate).
1. Prevention: Be Your Best Self
The first step is sometimes the hardest to hear, which is that negative reviews are often based on partial truths. Perhaps your wait times are quite long. And sometimes the receptionist can be rude to patients. Negative reviews are surprisingly consistent, and almost always reflect a patient who feels like they are not being listened to, respected, or treated with dignity.
We all recognize that many aspects of a patient’s experience are out of our control (e.g., limited parking in an urban setting), but we can educate and train our staff to demonstrate empathy when patients express frustration. When running behind schedule, a brief “I’m sorry you had to wait…” goes a long way toward defusing simmering frustration and having a more productive encounter. Start by thinking critically about some of the friction points during a patient’s experience in your office, and do your best to resolve or improve them. If you cannot improve a particularly challenging aspect, acknowledge it with a brief apology. You may be surprised how effective it will be.
2. Prophylaxis: The Solution to Pollution is Dilution
The easiest and most effective cure for negative online reviews is to reduce their relevance. Most doctors bothered by negative reviews only have a handful of reviews. Thus, a single one-star rating greatly reduces their average score. But imagine if you had 250-plus reviews with a 4.9 star rating. Would a negative review bother you? Unlikely; you may not even notice its presence. Acquiring 250-plus reviews may sound like a fantasy, but I assure you that is not the case. Google my name and see for yourself.
Numerous marketing companies focus on physician reputation management and review generation, but my market analysis suggested they are interested in long-term subscriptions and website development costs starting at $5,000 to $10,000, in addition to ongoing fees. In typical surgeon fashion, I wanted immediate results with minimal effort and low cost. Thus, through trial and error, I developed an automated, email-based system that directs patients to leave reviews. It has helped over 100 doctors acquire dozens of reviews within days, and hundreds of reviews within a few months. The result is complete control over your reputation and peace of mind. You will never have to worry about reviews again.
3. General Intervention: Address the Proper Audience
Like you, I have received one-star ratings with scathing comments that bruised my ego. Despite doing my best to treat patients with dignity, and flooding my online profiles with positive reviews, unhappy patients still leave reviews that sting. The typical gut reaction is to write a patient privacy-compliant response, which most review sites allow, trying to clarify or defend your actions. However, the common error is to treat the disgruntled patient as your audience. Before ever responding to a review online, you must first recognize that the audience for your response is not the angry patient, but rather the “potential” patient who will read your response in the context of evaluating your office for scheduling an appointment.
Recognizing that you will not change a patient’s opinion via an online response allows you to focus on expressing a constructive tone that demonstrates a desire to resolve the patient’s concern and improve your office for the future. In many cases, this can be (and should be) a generic response that does not address medical treatment at all. That’s the secret. The goal is not to change your patient’s opinion of your office. The goal is to broadcast to all potential future patients that “I care that you didn’t have a great experience, and I want to do better.”
4. Directed Intervention: Surgical Excision
My final advice should only be implemented after considering the specific circumstances of your patient’s complaint. I have had very positive experiences calling patients on the phone after reading about their negative experience, acknowledging my office’s failure, and offering corrective measures. Of the three patients I have called, two modified or removed their review and one ignored my call. One circumstance related to insurance authorization and scheduling delays. During my phone call with the patient, I expressed empathy about the insurance delays and explained how authorizations are out of our control. The patient (perhaps surprisingly) acknowledged the review was written in a state of emotional distress, appreciated my direct approach and apology, and removed the review.
Online reviews are scary when unverified patients can tarnish your professional reputation without recourse. However, 95% of patients are extremely appreciative of their doctors and typically quite happy to leave a positive rating, if asked. Thus, you can regain control by leveraging happy patients to boost your reputation and search rankings. I believe that all doctors would benefit from taking a proactive approach toward their online reputation by requesting positive reviews from patients, and strategically addressing any negative reviews in a way that signals empathy and compassion.
Share your experiences with negative online reviews in the comment section below.
Orrin Franko, MD, is a practicing orthopedic hand surgeon in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of SurgiSurvey.com, an automated marketing system designed to manage a practice's online reputation by collecting five-star Google and Yelp ratings.