Social Media & Online Reviews: a Blessing and a Curse for the Medical Profession

By Andrew Doan, MD/PhD

Today the most significant factor affecting how we communicate within our society relates to advances in telecommunications and computing power. Compare today to 150 years ago when Lewis and Clark explored the Western United States, communication was so slow that it took months before President Jefferson received news of their arrival in Oregon. For Jefferson, information traveled at the pace of very fast horses. The telegraph in 1837 changed the pace and allowed the transmission of information almost instantaneously. Our society enjoyed incredible advancements in telecommunication technology with the invention of the radio, TV, and satellite communications. The latter was a key component in the foundation for what we know today as the Internet. Eventually, Google assumed the role of the electronic librarian for billions of people, cataloging and organizing electronic content and media for anyone with Internet access. Google today aggregates and presents personal information about doctors and professionals, allowing anyone to review a service or doctor.

The advancements in telecommunication technology, most notably the Internet, have leveled the information playing field and allow all members of our society access to information about music, art, and science. This has been nothing short of a revolution — a telecommunication revolution. Similar to how the Guttenberg Press increased the distribution of books, the Internet significantly increased access to information that had been sequestered in various institutions and repositories often closed to the general public. For medicine, the impact of the telecommunication revolution has been profound. Through the Internet, physicians, educators, and patients communicate, share information, and collaborate 24 hours a day, 7 days per week using websites like The Student Doctor Network, Sharecare, AVVO, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and doctor review websites at the time most convenient to each individual.

Because of this telecommunications evolution in the digital age, traditional advertising modalities using print directories, phone books, newspapers, magazine, radio, and television are expensive and less effective than Internet marketing, social media, and doctor review websites. Online review sites such as Yelp! or Angie’s List have become as well-known as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, as is the new “word-of-mouth” in the digital age. These sites let customers leave their comments about customer service experiences, products they’ve purchased, or other important information for other people that may be looking for advice on whether or not to patronize a store. Well, doctor’s offices are no exception. Online review sites that allow patients to talk about their experiences at the doctor and recommend (or not recommend) them can be just as helpful to individuals and to the doctors with glowing reviews, attracting new patients. However, negative or unjust reviews from competing doctors or disgruntled patients can severely affect a doctor’s business and professional reputation, leading to empty waiting rooms and lost patients.

The current online review systems are broken because anyone can leave reviews anonymously with any valid email account. Online review websites that depend mainly on advertising dollars look unprofessional and may even have competitors’ ads on doctors’ profiles. Dealing with slanderous and false reviews is frustrating and time consuming.

Here are comments from Dr. E. Black, an oculoplastics surgeon working in the Mid-West:

“My two partners have recently been the victims of some inappropriate bad reviews on an online review site and yesterday I found a bad review on me on a different website. The review is false and may not even be from a real patient or a patient who doesn’t understand his/her condition. This review system is rapidly becoming impossible to monitor and desperately unfair against the physician. The posts are completely anonymous and the “poster” is free from risk of libel suit or other recourse. The physician usually has no ability or forum to respond. Additionally, our practice is not like a plumber or auto mechanic. We are dealing with the most complex system on earth and people with no training or limited understanding become angry when things don’t go their way. That does not necessarily mean the physician is at fault. I feel very strongly about fighting back against this new agent in this war on doctors that seems to be going on.”

Unfortunately, I have been a victim of slanderous online reviews too. After graduating from high school, I devoted seventeen years of my life studying to become a physician and surgeon, received a full ride scholarship for my MD-PhD degrees at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and have a highly esteemed curriculum vitae. I devoted most of my adult life working so that I can serve other patients in a professional and ethical manner, only to be attacked online by an anonymous person when they wrote “MONEY GRUBBER” on a third party online review website one day after the grand opening of my practice. I was likely a victim of a competing doctor or disgruntled associate. I spent most of my time in the clinic seeing Medical Rescue Mission patients at no charge – not billing the patients and giving glasses away at no cost for those who cannot afford glasses.

The current online review system for doctors is severely unjust, broken, unregulated, and horrible for doctors. Online review websites are natural magnets for negative reviews. For instance, Ruth Williams, MD is the incoming President of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and is an outstanding physician. After 21 years of serving her patients, she has zero online reviews. Therefore, when you are an outstanding doctor who never has angered one patient, you receive no reviews. But angry patients are quick to slander their doctors. A colleague of mine is an oculoplastics surgeon, and he states all his negative reviews are related to insurance billing problems and patients who refuse to pay his surgical fee after receiving surgery. In primary care and internal medicine, doctors are victims of patients who are drug seeking and are angry because an ethical doctor did not prescribe pain medications to support a drug addiction.

The current state of online reviews makes doctors feel helpless, angry, and frustrated. The situation is not hopeless, however, and there are seven high-impact things you can do to be proactive to fight against defamation of your name, your reputation, and your credentials.

1) Reconnaissance. The first step in fighting the war against slanderous reviews is being educated on what people find when searching your name and then monitor the websites that appear on the first page of Google. Search your name on Google and see what others will see when searching your name. Use Google Alerts to receive automated emails from Google when there is new information about your name on the Internet. Monitor your online presence often and regularly.

2) Brick Wall. In search engine management, the term Brick Wall is utilized to control the presentation of web sites people find when searching your name. When patients search “Andrew Doan” on Google, of the more than 17 million search results, I control and monitor the 9 of the 10 micro-websites that appear on the first page of the search. Controlling what people find will draw attention away from less creditable doctor review websites. When my patients receive a recommendation to see me, they inevitably search my name to determine if they will make an appointment.

3) Search Engine Optimization and Management. The utilization of search engine management will help raise the websites you want to appear higher in search results. One effective way is to claim and add your practice website addresses on all social media profiles, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN, and Google Plus.

4) Be an ethical and good medical professional. This sounds like common sense. But medical professionals may feel entitled and forget that being a good doctor is serving other people. Try to serve others with a caring heart, but without expecting anything in return. Remember that it’s a privilege to work in the medical profession and to be employed during difficult economic times. Learn to love what you do. If you find a career that you love, then the money is icing on the cake; otherwise, the money will be the shackle that binds you to the very thing you hate. For those not loving their work in the medical profession and cannot say, “I can’t believe they are paying me to do this”, then perhaps it is time to reconsider another profession. Unhappy medical professionals will foster unhappy patients, leading to horrendous online reviews.

5) Encourage patients to post feedback online. Receiving positive reviews is as easy as asking patients to review your services online. The problem is that there are dozens of review websites, and only a fraction of patients will take the time to post reviews online. However, if you don’t ask, then patients will not post reviews for you.

6) The solution to pollution is dilution. Negative reviews are not necessarily bad. We all want to be “perfect”, but in reality, nobody is perfect. In a new study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, researchers say in some cases negative publicity can increase sales when a product or company is relatively unknown, simply because it stimulates product awareness. Embrace the negative reviews, learn from them, and become a better doctor tomorrow than you were today. Unfortunately, not all review websites represent true patient reviews and may be postings from local competitors or simply slanderous individuals. The solution to negative reviews is not litigation or gag orders, which are against the law and may expose you to ligation for violating free speech laws as seen in the New York dentist . Also, posting of false or fake testimonials may lead to loss of your medical license and up to $300,000 as observed in the case of a New York plastic surgeon. The answer to negative reviews is to learn from the review and then accumulate more positive reviews than negative.

7) Verified Doctor Reviews™. Work with a third-party organization to collect, process, and post Verified Doctor Reviews™ on your behalf. The answer to the current slanderous review system that naturally attracts negative reviews is to have a credible organization collect, verify, and post reviews to protect both doctor and patients. It’s all about the reviews. An interview with one of the Vice Presidents at Vitals.com indicate that Vitals.com receives over 8 million patients searching for doctors monthly and two of three patients go directly to comments posted about the doctors.

First mover advantage is important, particularly when encouraging patients to review your medical and professional services. I have found that asking patients to write a review on paper and then working with a third-party mediator who collects and distributes the reviews fairly is the best approach and most-effective way to protect both doctor and patient. First mover advantage allows a doctor to accumulate more reviews than the competition. When patients search for doctors on the Internet, the two most influential things are the star rating and the number of reviews for a doctor, the higher the star rating and the higher the number of reviews convey competence and value to patients. Doctors with more positive reviews will attract more patients through the Internet. Some practices are attracting nearly 25% of their new patients directly from the Internet through online reviews and blogs. Personally, an optometrist called me to refer patients because of my online reviews. Therefore, resident physicians who manage their online image early will be extremely competitive in attracting new patients the first day they accept their first position. As an individual who hires young doctors, I will definitely take into consideration the doctors’ online reputation.

The advancement and evolution of information technology is exciting, but also presents new challenges for both doctors and patients. Patients prefer Internet resources and are more likely to use online resources as their primary reference, including searching, finding, and reviewing doctors. Your online reputation matters.

About the Author
Dr. Andrew Doan is the founder of www.eyerounds.org, www.eye-socal.com, www.medrounds.org and www.credentialprotection.com. Dr. Doan practices comprehensive ophthalmology and eye pathology and is board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology. Dr. Doan gives numerous talks on Internet marketing and practice management at national meetings and is an industry expert in social media, search engine management, and Internet marketing for medical practices. Dr. Doan is currently finishing his first book, www.hooked-on-games.com, Hooked On Games: The Lure and Cost of Internet and Video Game Addiction. Dr. Doan’s second book, The Biggest 24: Harnessing Your Full Potential in the Digital Age (www.biggest24.com), will be released in 2013.

Born in Saigon Vietnam and raised in Oregon, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology from Reed College. He completed his MD and PhD degrees at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Doan completed both an Internal Medicine Internship and Ophthalmology residency at the University of Iowa. After his ophthalmology training, he completed his fellowship in eye pathology at the Jules Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Doan volunteers as a clinical provider at the Temecula-Murrieta Rescue Mission. He is an Assistant Professor of Surgery at Loma Linda University. Dr. Doan teaches medical students and residents, has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals, is managing editor for the Journal of Academic Ophthalmology, and speaks at national meetings.

Dr. Doan is the Chair for the Young Ophthalmologist committee, Ophthalmic News & Education Network Deputy Editor-in-Chief, and an OPHTHPAC/Congressional Advocacy Committee member for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. In addition, Dr. Doan serves as an Underwriting & Risk Management Committee Member for the Ophthalmic Mutual Insurance Company.

When not pursuing his career interests, he enjoys spending time with family and serving at Rancho Community Church as a Celebrate Recovery 12-Step Leader for Gaming & Internet Addictions. Dr. Doan has served on humanitarian cataract missions in Burkina Faso Africa. Email: adoan[at]medrounds.org

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

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2 Responses to “Social Media & Online Reviews: a Blessing and a Curse for the Medical Profession”

  1. Ameera says:

    Very good article and something I never considered.

  2. ReallyNotTrue says:

    “Be an ethical and good medical professional…without expecting anything in return. Remember that it’s a privilege to work in the medical profession and to be employed during difficult economic times. Learn to love what you do…For those not loving their work in the medical profession and cannot say, “I can’t believe they are paying me to do this”, then perhaps it is time to reconsider another profession. Unhappy medical professionals will foster unhappy patients, leading to horrendous online reviews.”

    Really? It’s my job to deal with people’s uncivil behavior. If you want to be sad because of some medical reason, that’s fine. It doesn’t give you a right to verbally attack me, other worthwhile patients, and post inaccurate reviews. Only in the US do people falsely think more than just another number in line ready to abuse the system. Treating jerks is somehow a good course of action. If we started throwing them on the streets, maybe they would realize how unimportant they are in the whole scheme of things and maybe show some gratitude even it is only 15 minutes. It’s not like their tax dollars are paying for it.