Some doctors try to squelch online reviews
By Dina ElBoghdady, Published: January 28, 2012
Fuming about a billing dispute with his dentist, Robert Allen Lee posted his complaints on two consumer review Web sites, triggering a legal battle over a technique designed to snuff out negative online commentary.
In late August, a day after Lee posted his comments on Yelp and DoctorBase, he received a letter from the dental practice threatening to sue him for at least $100,000 for “defamation, slander and libel.” The letter reminded him that he’d signed an agreement with his dentist that barred him from publishing a critique of her or her office.
While extreme, such do-not-talk contracts underscore the struggle between consumers that are eager to share their thoughts online and companies that are looking for ways to protect their reputations in an environment in which social media helps shape opinions on just about everything.
In the political sphere, social media helped fuel the demonstrations of the Arab Spring. Everywhere else, online chatter informs our decisions on which hotel to book, what to read, which plumber to hire, where to eat – even who to date.
But rating doctors is another matter. While 80 percent of adults say they use the Internet to search for health information, only 16 percent use it to look for reviews of doctors and far fewer post such reviews, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Consumers spend more time shopping for a refrigerator or car than they do for a health-care plan or doctor, according to a survey by the Altarum Institute, a nonprofit health systems research and consulting group. Although 60 percent of the respondents said they engaged in detailed research when car shopping, fewer than one in three devoted much time to vetting a doctor.
“There’s a case to be made that the average consumer has a good basis for judging if a meal is tasty or the plumber fixed the leak,” said James B. Speta, an Internet policy professor at Northwestern University School of Law. “But medical services are specialized. When you start talking about whether the treatment was the correct one, it’s highly technical. . . . One can ask: ‘What is the value of the consumer input?’ ”
That’s what consumers and the medical community are trying to figure out.