Respond to health care reviews online without violating HIPAA

What should you do if a patient posts a negative review about your practice? Follow these guidelines for replying safely.

For most business owners, responding to negative reviews left online by irate customers is simply a matter of replying directly to the reviews themselves. For medical practitioners, though, this process is complicated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA requires medical professionals to go through a lengthier medical reputation management process to manage and maintain their reputations online.

While dealing with negative reviews can be a little hairy, the good news is there’s a right way to respond.

Why should you care about HIPAA when responding to reviews?

We all know HIPAA protects the confidentiality of patients’ medical information. Under HIPAA, medical professionals cannot share a patient’s protected medical information. This includes medical history and identifying information, unless the patient provides explicit written consent. To disclose this information without consent constitutes a HIPAA violation.

While HIPAA provides an essential protection to patients, it also creates a unique challenge for health care providers trying to protect their medical reputation.

For instance, a patient might write: I was unhappy with the service I received from Dr. Angela Charter. She was rude and implied that my symptoms weren’t genuine.”

Let’s say Dr. Charter responds by saying: “Hi there! I’m sorry you thought I was rude to you. At the time I saw you, I felt that your ankle wasn’t broken, but only sprained. If you’re still in severe pain, please go to your nearest emergency room.”

Dr. Charter just violated HIPAA.

There are two clear HIPAA violations here:

1. The doctor confirms the individual is a patient.

2. The doctor gives out medical details the patient didn’t mention in the original complaint.

Even when the situation isn’t this clear-cut, it’s easy for a doctor to inadvertently violate HIPAA simply by acknowledging they saw an individual as a patient. Even if patients themselves state they saw a particular doctor, for the doctor to confirm this as fact still constitutes a HIPAA violation.

Given the difficulties in replying to reviews online—combined with the importance of maintaining a good online reputation—how can health care professionals respond to negative reviews effectively?

Remember two simple rules to medical reputation management:

Rule #1: Actively manage your reputation

The first rule of medical reputation management is to always be looking for negative reviews on major review sites. This can be difficult for physicians to do, because it’s extremely time consuming.

One way to solve this is by using tools that search for and find reviews posted on major sites like Facebook, Google My Business, Healthgrades®, RealSelf, Yelp, Get Five Stars and others. Without such tools, the only way you hear about bad reviews is when someone else tells you about them. The damage to your reputation is done by that point. If you can locate negative reviews quickly—and deal with them effectively—you stand a much better chance of reducing the damage they can do.

Rule #2: Encourage satisfied patients to share their experiences

You can’t prevent people from leaving negative reviews online. But when a patient tells you they’ve had a great experience, ask them if they would be willing to say so online. Reasonable people expect some negative reviews. Making sure there are plenty of positive reviews from patients provides a more holistic representation of what potential patients can expect from you. If you have patients’ email addresses or mobile phone numbers, you can use the Get Five Stars tool to handle the process of asking for reviews.

OK, so you have a negative review. What’s next?

When you get a negative review, your first goal should be to convince the patient to remove it. If that can’t be achieved, then respond to the review in a way that reduces or removes its sting.

To figure out where to start, you need to collect all the facts.

Conduct an internal investigation

To handle the situation the right way, you have to know what really happened. Talk to the staff members involved in the incident and find out why the patient is dissatisfied. For instance, if the patient had a cosmetic procedure and is dissatisfied with the results, is it because he or she had unrealistic expectations? Did the patient experience rude behavior? Get charged the wrong amount? Once you understand the real problem, you can do something about it.

Determine if you can get the negative review removed with an appeal

Appeal to the site itself to have the review taken down. This isn’t easy to do because most sites have fairly narrow criteria for removal.

A review could be taken down for several reasons:

  • Third-party review: The reviewer didn’t visit you personally, but posted on behalf of someone else who did.
  • Didn’t use the service: The reviewer didn’t use your service at all, but left a negative review based on an advertisement or other source.
  • Personal attacks on staff: A review uses language that’s derogatory or defamatory, or attacks a person’s race, ethnicity, disability, religion, etc.

Since removal criteria differ from site to site, it’s important to check the Terms of Service on the review site. This option may have limited success, but it’s always worth investigating as a first step.

Gauge the sentiment of the reviewer

Read the review carefully, and try to gauge how the reviewer actually feels. Generally, there are three possibilities:

· The review is mildly negative, and the reviewer is not clearly upset or frustrated.

· The reviewer is clearly frustrated or upset, but isn’t threatening.

· The reviewer is clearly frustrated and angry, and is threatening legal action.

Most patients fall into the first two categories. Reaching out to the review offline is the most effective way to handle a negative review. In the third instance, contacting the reviewer can be counterproductive, and it’s best to consult an attorney before reaching out.

Decide what you’re willing to do to fix it

If you plan to reach out to a patient offline, document in advance what you’re willing to do to remedy the problem. For instance, if they’re complaining about an extra charge they weren’t aware of, are you willing to write that charge off? Are you willing to have them come in again for free? One of the keys to negotiation is to know what you’re willing to do before you start talking.

Reach out to the reviewer offline

It’s always best if the doctor reaches out to the patient regardless of who is involved. Reviewers will believe you’re serious about resolving their issue, and it helps them feel more respected and valued. This is crucial because most people who leave negative reviews do so because they feel unheard.

When reaching out, the most important thing to do is simply listen. Try to understand the patient’s point of view. Once they’ve had their say, explain your own point of view. Remember that it’s important to avoid arguing or seeming accusatory. Explain where the misunderstanding lies, but avoid laying any blame.

After each of you has explained your point of view, offer one of your mitigation options. Ask if they’re willing to take their review down. In most cases, they’ll be willing to do so. Most dissatisfied patients aren’t trying to be difficult or vindictive; they’re just frustrated and want you to listen to them.

If that doesn’t work, respond to the review online

In some cases, you won’t be able to identify a patient from their review, or you won’t have his or her contact information. In these cases, your only option is to respond online. To avoid violating HIPAA, it’s important to do this very carefully.

Your response should do three things:

  1. Thank the reviewer for his or her feedback.
  2. Let the reviewer know you take feedback and privacy seriously.
  3. Show potential prospects that you care and want to rectify the situation by inviting the reviewer to continue the conversation offline. Provide a name and a direct number by which you can be reached.

Here is an example:

“Dear John, thank you for your feedback. At Good Smiles Dentistry, we take patient satisfaction seriously. In order to protect our patients’ privacy, we prefer to handle situations like these offline.

“Would you be willing to call my office at 555-555-1212 and ask to speak with me so I can better understand the situation?

“Thanks in advance for your help – Dr. Smith”

A response like this takes the sting out of the review by showing that you care and want to resolve the situation quickly and professionally. You also did not disclose information or confirm the reviewer was a patient.

Great reviews are your best salespeople

Medical professionals have a tougher time handling negative reviews, but if handled properly, patient reviews can play a big role in increasing your book of patients.

Daryl Johnson is the founder of Frontier Marketing. The original version of this post is published here.

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