Insult And Injury: Doctors Vindictively Maligned Online

By  //  April 8, 2014

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EDITOR’S NOTE: It is highly likely that if you were planning to go see a new movie, eat at a new restaurant, or were in the market for a new car, refrigerator or cell phone, you would go online to check consumer reviews and ratings. That information is readily available and generally reliable.

In February, I reported on research out of the University of Michigan that shows online ratings have now also started to have an impact on physician selection.

Physicians are particularly vulnerable to being unfairly maligned on public platforms and are more limited than other service providers to respond to these reviews due to the restrictions placed on them to not divulge personal information about their patients.

The lead author of the study, Dr. David Hanauer, said, “Our study indicates that the public is using online physician ratings to make important decisions for their healthcare, despite persistent questions about how trustworthy these rating sites are.”

Only 5 percent of survey participants reported that they had ever posted ratings or reviews of doctors, and Hanauer cautioned, “The small percentage of people who actually post reviews suggests that people who depend on online ratings may not be getting a balanced picture of a doctor’s care.”

The article excerpted below takes Dr. Hanauer’s concern to the next level, with several disturbing accounts of how physicians, whose livelihood and careers are extremely vulnerable to online criticism, have been outrageously maligned. Restricted by confidentiality laws from defending themselves against even the most outlandish of claims and with patients increasingly dependent on internet marketplaces to find care, physicians and other caregivers are becoming more frustrated and being harmed by angry, vindictive patients.

The full article is a bit long, but Jake Rossen’s objective and very comprehensive coverage of the issue is well worth the read.

—Dr. Jim Palermo, Editor-in-Chief

BUZZFEED.COM–At first glance, the homepage for Philip Leggett, M.D., appeared unremarkable. Visitors were greeted with stock photos of smiling faces in a banner across the top; Leggett’s credentials as a respected laparoendoscopic surgeon were in bold type.

But closer examination revealed something curious: the patient reviews. “My husband went into surgery to have his appendix removed. … he died two days later,” read one. Another: “Dr. Leggett and his staff strongly believe that the best physician-patient relationships are based on mutual respect and trust. That is, until we perform your surgery, after which we just dump you in the streets like a black baby in a dumpster.”

One patient of Leggett’s found this to be a curious way to attract business and asked about it during an appointment. “You’ve got a problem with your site,” the man said. Leggett saw what was going on and quickly contacted authorities in Harris County, Texas.

online review
Some disgruntled patients are using online comments and reviews to mount vengeful calculated attacks on caregivers with the intention of inflicting irreparable damage to careers and reputations.

“It was a case of online impersonation, which is illegal in Texas,” says Lt. Gary Spurger, of Harris County’s High Tech Crimes Unit. “It looked almost identical to his real site, but it was not complimentary of the doctor. At all.”

Lt. Spurger traced the source IP, which led to the home of web designer Vector Thorn. Thorn, who had legally changed his name to sound like something out of a James Bond movie for reasons unknown, had obtained the URL within a week of having a procedure performed by Leggett in September 2012. He didn’t populate the site with fake reviews until June 2013.

Thorn was charged with a third-degree felony and released on bond. When asked by Spurger why he waited almost a year to do something, Thorn had no good answer. But Spurger knew the motive: “He wanted more narcotics.”

There is certainly nothing new or novel about people being mean to one another on the internet. But health care occupies a unique space amid critiques of restaurant appetizers and roofers: Because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 prevents doctors from discussing patients, disgruntled and anonymous individuals can pick fights over their quality of medical care with little chance of being successfully hit back, leaving physicians almost powerless to defend themselves. In some instances, aggravated patients use that advantage to mount calculated attacks with the intention of inflicting irreparable damage to careers and reputations. In the life-and-death world of health care, a disgruntled few could impact the medical decisions of thousands already struggling to make sense of new marketplace mandates and regulations.

“I would say the internet has not yet matured to the point where there’s a way of easily understanding the difference between an allegation that has some merit and an allegation that’s simply someone venting who has an axe to grind,” says Gary Nissenbaum, an attorney specializing in commercial litigation. “It’s very hard to tell the two apart.”

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