How should I respond to a patient’s negative online review?

By Joaquin A. Villegas, MD, MPH | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published August 12, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Residents should keep a close eye on their online presence to identify potential threats to their online reputation.

  • Responding to negative patient reviews is allowed, but be careful to avoid HIPAA violations.

  • A negative review can be an opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism and your workplace's commitment to patient care.

In today’s age of social media and the importance of maintaining an online presence, a negative review from a patient can cause serious consequences for a physician and their practice. This can be particularly damaging to residents or new practices, as online reviews are an important factor for prospective patients.

In fact, a study from 2021 conducted by the healthcare reputation management company RepuGen showed that 81% of patients seek online reviews for particular providers before making appointments with them. In addition, the same study showed that 40% of patients would not visit a provider with less-than-stellar reviews.[]

It is important for residents to learn how to manage their online reputation by interacting and engaging with online patient reviews, while also properly addressing negative patient reviews without scaring away potential patients.

Monitoring your online presence

One of the first steps for managing an online presence is to know where to look for reviews. The most common sources of information for patients when they are looking for physician reviews are Google, Healthgrades, and WebMD. These websites work as review aggregators that make it easy for new patients to look up a provider they have been referred to, or even when they are looking for a primary care physician.

“It is a good way to get patient feedback,” Elena Zamora, MD, told MDLinx, “but do not obsess over the comments.”

Dr. Zamora, an assistant professor at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School in Houston, is active on social media and community engagement with the Family Medicine Residency program. She said online reviews help her to identify issues within her practice and interactions with patients.

“The thing to pay attention to is when the feedback tends to have a theme and patients keep reporting the same complaints,” she added. By identifying common complaints, a physician can improve their way of approaching patients, or even improve workflow deficiencies in their clinical practice.

Common patient complaints

Surprisingly, most patient complaints are not related to issues with the actual medical management by the physician.

Based on a 2016 study that looked at more than 35,000 Google reviews, more than half of patient complaints were due to a perceived lack of communication, followed by long wait-times and negative service from clinic staff.[]

Thus, most negative patient reviews can be avoided by ensuring a good workflow starting from the initial point of contact with patients. If there are multiple negative reviews related to an issue in these areas, quickly identifying the source could vastly improve patient satisfaction and reduce the risk of more negative reviews. The physician can work closely with their staff to provide an efficient patient encounter, while ensuring polite communication throughout the visit.

On the flip side, the study also found that most compliments listed in positive reviews were also not directly related to medical management. The top-three compliments were due to the physician exhibiting good bedside manners, helpful clinic staff, and effective communication. This only serves to emphasize the value of a positive patient experience as part of a successful clinical encounter.

HIPAA considerations

One crucial consideration before responding to online reviews in a public forum is that HIPAA still applies to these interactions, even if they take place virtually. However, it does not mean that physicians and their practices are unable to respond.

The American Medical Association states on their website that “there are no federal laws or regulations” that stop physicians from responding to online reviews, but they must do so carefully to avoid HIPAA violations.[]

Although the patient may have already revealed personal information in the review, the physician must still maintain the patient’s privacy.

This can be done by avoiding patient-specific information, such as mentioning diseases, treatment, or even acknowledging that the reviewer is a patient.

Instead, focus on addressing general practice issues or protocols that are brought up on the complaint. For example, if the review talks about long wait times or lack of communication from the front desk staff, the physician should address these concerns in a generalized way that avoids mentioning information specific to that particular patient.

Approximately 65% of patients that make negative online reviews are satisfied with the response from the physician, and they might change or even delete their negative review, per the AMA. However, if a patient mentions the possibility of litigation or makes threats to the physician or the practice in the review, it is best to notify your legal department.

"In cases of malpractice accusations, always check with legal."

Elena Zamora, MD

Responding to negative reviews

By reading and responding to negative reviews publicly, physicians can change the narrative of the review and demonstrate to the online audience that they take patient input seriously and make their patients feel heard and valued. But, it is important to approach the response with a calm demeanor to avoid making the situation worse.

One thing that patients look for is a prompt response to their negative review—usually within 1 week, per RepuGen.

Remember to avoid responding harshly or while in an emotional state—your response could come across as unprofessional or dismissive. If it’s not possible for the provider to comment online without breaching HIPAA, consider reaching out offline to resolve the conflict with the reviewer directly.

On a public website, where the patient might have already identified themselves or if the physician is able to confirm who the patient is, it is appropriate to reach out via phone call or email to discuss their concerns.[] During the discussion, empathize with the patient and apologize without making excuses or blaming the patient for the issue.

Instead, focus on what issues can be addressed, and how the clinic plans on improving based on the feedback it has received. Keep in mind that under the Consumer Review Fairness Act, it is unlawful to restrict or penalize patients for their online reviews, so do not ask the patient to remove their review during the meeting, as this could result in federal fines.

However, reaching out to a patient might be difficult if the complaint is anonymous or if the physician is unable to confirm the identity of the patient that left the review. In this case, responding on the public forum by acknowledging the issues mentioned while reinforcing the clinic’s goal of providing the best patient care possible is the best approach. Consider adding a phone number or email address so that the unidentified patient can respond directly if they have any further comments or if they are interested in a personal discussion.

In any public response to online reviews, always thank patients for their input. Finally, feel free to ask patients with positive experiences to leave reviews as well. This way, one negative review will not affect the overall grade of the practice and protect the physician from negatively skewed reviews.

What this means for you

Negative online patient reviews can be a scary and challenging issue for physicians to address. However, with the right approach—both online and offline—these reviews can be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism and commitment to patient care, while also improving your online presence that can attract new patients and retain the current patient base as well.

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