A recent article in The Boston Globe spotlighted a growing problem for patients: doctors suing them for publishing unfavorable reviews or statements on the internet. The article focused on the efforts of a Boston-area neurosurgeon, Dr. Sagun Tuli, to counteract the supposed effects of negative publicity generated by a blog created by a disgruntled former patient.
Unfortunately for the doctors, the effort to have unfavorable information removed often has exactly the opposite effect, generating more unwanted publicity and increasing the doctor’s visibility on search engines such as Google. Dubbed the “Streisand effect,” this unintended consequence landed Dr. Tuli in a prominent position in the Globe, which reported on her lawsuit. Instead of eliminating any on-line reference to her patient’s dissatisfaction, she only succeeded in making it more public and more permanent: although the blog that bothered her has disappeared, the Globe article will remain accessible indefinitely, and perhaps forever. And the publicity has multiplied, as other blogs and news outlets have picked up the story.
Forbes Magazine focused on a different aspect of the issue: the magazine reported that some doctors over-prescribe tests and treatments in order to satisfy patients and raise their ratings. The author speculated that the adverse effects of over-treatment may actually be hazardous to patients!
Although the First Amendment will likely protect patients from most successful suits, the doctors’ suits nevertheless have had unpleasant consequences for some patients. A California neurosurgeon named Aaron Filler sued a patient over an unfavorable review on a physician rating site. Although the suit was dismissed, and Filler was ordered to pay some $50,000 of his patient’s legal fees, the patient, Susan Walker, was apparently tied up in court for a year, and still suffered some financial loss.
While some doctors have complained that they are hampered by patient privacy laws when they try to rebut unfavorable information, there is no reason that consumers of medical care should have fewer rights than other types of consumers when it comes to posting reviews about the services they receive. There are services to rate lawyers and many other types of service providers. Patients have always relied on word-of-mouth reports from family and friends in choosing doctors.
For every problem, there’s a solution, and some doctors have responded by hiring services to help improve their online reputation. These services focus not on eliminating the negative, but in creating counterbalancing positive information in the form of blogs, press interviews, and favorable patient ratings.
I’ve always been astounded at how we as patients have come to accept, and even expect that our doctors will keep us waiting long past our scheduled appointment times, and then rush through the visit without really listening to us. Maybe, as some commentators have suggested, the doctors who consider suing their patients should try a different approach: perhaps if they provided better service, their ratings would rise!