How Doctors Should Respond to Internet Defamation

Internet Defamation of Doctors: How to Respond 

You know how it feels to have a bad experience somewhere, right?

You are disappointed, frustrated, and never want to repeat the experience again.

So, the next time you need a particular service, you do a quick search online first to avoid another negative encounter. You seek out reviews about what other people experienced so that you know what to expect when you walk through the business’s doors.

You do it and so do your patients. As a doctor, having positive reviews is one of the best marketing tools in your toolbox. You keep a close eye on the reviews of your practice.

Then one day it happens. You see a libelous, defamatory post about your office. You’re disappointed, but not at your office. You’re disappointed that someone felt the need to attack your practice with untrue claims. How could someone claim that you committed medical malpractice, that you “butchered” them, or that you practiced medicine while on drugs or alcohol?

As a doctor, you can’t afford to have a defamatory review. Many doctors have had their practices completely destroyed by false, defamatory online reviews.  One red flag can send your prospective patients running away from you. The question then becomes, how should you handle the defamation while ensuring you don’t further damage your business?

HIPPA Ties Your Hands

As a doctor, the first thing you must consider is that the review may be from an actual patient.  If that is the case, if you respond to defend yourself and mention the patient’s name, you violate HIPPA and could be subject to fines or penalties.

Needless to say, that’s not good.  

You must exercise great caution to identify the author of the defamatory reviews, whether it be by hiring an Internet investigator, issuing subpoenas to the website on which the defamation appears, or using forensic linguistics to identify the author.

Do Not Respond

The best response in these cases is to not engage the defamatory author online.  You can easily run into the mistake of revealing confidential patient information.  You can also add legitimacy to the attack by making it acceptable to discuss whether you routinely commit malpractice.  And you can inadvertently throw fuel on the fire by encouraging other to come to the author’s defense. How to Get Your Hands Untied from HIPAA

Although HIPAA laws make it seem like you’re stuck in a no-win situation, there is hope. Here is how you can fight back.

Step 1: File a Lawsuit

You first need to file a lawsuit against the person who wrote the defamatory review. If you have evidence of who authored the defamatory review, then list them as the defendant.  If they are a former patient, do not mention that in your initial court filings – that would be a public disclosure of the confidential information that your patient was treated for a medical condition.  

If you do not know who authored the defamatory posting, then file the lawsuit against “John or Jane Doe” so that you can issue a subpoena to identify the author.

You are not able to sue the website where the review is housed because they are protected under the Federal Communications Decency Act.

It is important to note the difference between a negative review and a defamatory review. Negative reviews are truthful accounts of what happened in your office. However, as soon as a review contains factually inaccurate accusations, freedom of speech no longer protects the author of the content, and you’re able to file a lawsuit against him or her.

Step 2: Get a HIPAA protective order from court

At some point in the litigation, it may be necessary to present evidence of a patient’s experience to the court.  In that case, you can file a motion for what is known as a “HIPPA Protective Order.”  That allows you to file confidential patient information that is relevant to your case under seal so that the public cannot obtain access to it.  That way, you can litigate your case with all of the facts and your patient’s confidential medical information remains confidential.

In other words, opinions are considered negative reviews, which you cannot file a lawsuit over. False claims, such as that you are unlicensed, can hurt your business and is not protected by freedom of speech.
Step 3: Win Your Case

With the protection of a HIPPA Protective Order, you can litigate your case to win.

Prove the defamatory posting contained disparaging, false assertions of fact that damaged your practice and you should be able to win your case. That can result in not only monetary damages, but also a court order directing the defendant to remove the defamatory content.

Starting the Removal Process

You have a business to run. If your medical office has been a victim of a defamatory review online, it’s important you find the right law firm to help you file the lawsuit and get the HIPAA protective order from court. The more you can free yourself from having to take down these damaging reviews, the more you can refocus your energy on growing your practice.

We’re happy to talk this through with you. Contact us for more information about what can be done to restore your business’s online reputation.