When Should You Respond to Bad Online Reviews of Your Practice?

Negative online reviews don’t have to be bad for your practice.

As a healthcare practitioner or administrator, your first reaction to a negative online review of your practice (or you personally) might stir up a mix of emotions ranging from confusion, disappointment, or even outright anger.

It’s natural to want to respond to those reviews and correct any misconceptions — and you should respond — but how, when, and where you respond will make all the difference in how much that review impacts your practice.

Just How Important are Negative Patient Reviews?

Even if a patient’s visit goes perfectly, there’s no guarantee that they will leave a positive review.

Negative reviews (or even middle-of-the-road reviews) can be the result of any number of things outside of your control. If the patient had a bad experience but didn’t tell you, for example, you might assume things went well only to find out later that you didn’t live up to expectations.

On the other side, if doctors and nursing staff are rushed or overwhelmed, there’s no telling how patients will interpret that stress. They may vent online in a review without telling you exactly why they were upset.

But it’s important to address any negative reviews when they pop up, as reviews can have a significant impact on how new and current patients perceive your reputation.

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One study on the impact of negative reviews on Patient Satisfaction Surveys (PSSs) found that in some cases satisfaction numbers were lower for physicians that had negative online reviews compared to those that had none.

As Dr. R. Jay Widmer, MD, PhD from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota notes, “These findings are important, not only in disassociating formal [institutional] scores from online review comments but also in emphasizing that physicians need to be cognizant of their reputation both online and in-person.”

In other words, online reputation matters.

Negative online reviews don’t always spell doom, of course. According to Dr. Thomas Lee, Chief Medical Officer for Press Ganey, negative reviews give practitioners the chance to “raise their game.”

“The big impact [of reviews] is on the people being measured, not so much on the consumer,” he notes.

If practitioners and/or healthcare administrators are able to take negative reviews into consideration, monitor their own behaviors, make necessary changes, and respond professionally to reviewers, they can turn a negative situation into a positive.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for responding to negative online reviews in ways that can positively impact your practice.

Do Address Negative Reviews

It simply tells your patients and potential patients that you don’t care about their experiences or your public perception.

So if possible, always respond to a negative review.

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Ultimately, patients just want to be heard. Even the worst experience can be made slightly better if a doctor or office staff member responds correctly.

If their complaint is resolved (as much as it can be), they will be even more likely to return for a repeat visit. Or, at the very least, they may take down their negative review or otherwise change their perceptions of your practice.

Even if they don’t, making the effort is always worth it if you know how to respond correctly.

Respond Objectively and Professionally

What is the correct response?

The ultimate goal when responding to negative patient reviews is to clarify any misinformation and to address the situation (without violating HIPAA) in a professional and personal manner.

It may be tempting to respond to an offensive or highly emotional review with an equally emotional response, but professionalism will help your practice come out looking better on the other end. So keep your cool, no matter what.

Start by acknowledging that you hear what the reviewer is saying, then either ask questions about the particular visit (be mindful that some questions may be too personal to answer online) to clarify any confusion or simply give context to the situation as best as you can.

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It’s important that the person responding to the review be the one who is most familiar with the situation described. If the complaint is lodged against one of the office practitioners, for instance, have that doctor or nurse respond directly.

If the negative review is lodged against the entire practice, do your best to ascertain from staff members or those who have interacted with the patient about the exact circumstances of the visit and why they may be upset.

In some cases, it may be difficult to remember a patient’s visit. If that happens, simply respond as professionally and politely as possible, asking them to send you a private message to clarify.

You should also ask yourself and your staff questions like:

  • When did this happen?
  • Who was involved?
  • Why was the situation negative for the patient?
  • Have we heard this complaint before?
  • Could something have been done to prevent this?
  • What should we change to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

Remember that whether or not a review is “valid” in your mind doesn’t matter as much as the patient’s perspective, so be objective.

Protect Patient Information and Be Mindful of HIPAA

It’s important to publicly respond to negative reviews.

Others who see it may have had similar experiences but been too afraid to share, or may be wondering about the exact circumstances of the review and whether or not that “negative situation” would happen to them, too.

By addressing these concerns in the public eye, you can mitigate any unwarranted perceptions of your practice before they damage your reputation.

In some cases, however, responding to negative reviews publicly may carry the risk of HIPAA violations.

Some patients may unintentionally give out private information about their medical or personal history in a review. While you can’t always control that, it’s important to avoid addressing things like medical conditions, diagnosis, or treatments online.

The best solution is to post a generic but professional and friendly response that doesn’t go into specific details.

Something like, “Due to HIPAA regulations, we can’t discuss the specifics about your comments. But we are committed to providing you with the best possible care and we take these reviews seriously.”

Even though you can’t always respond to the exact situation in the review, you can still show the reviewer (and anyone reading the review) that you are listening and that you do care.

Offer Private Communication

If the review warrants a more personal response that does risk violating HIPAA, and/or the reviewer requests a more detailed response, send a private message.

Depending on where the review is posted, if a reviewer is anonymous and/or doesn’t provide any additional contact information you may be able to send a private message through the review site itself.

Be sure to follow any messaging rules that the site has in regards to communicating with reviewers directly.

If there is no way to send a private message to the reviewer, and you’re unsure of their identity (don’t ask for their contact information on a public site), ask that the reviewer send you a private message or email instead.

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You can also ask the patient to schedule a follow up meeting if they seem extremely upset. While they may or may not take up the offer, it shows that you genuinely want to resolve the issue and that you’re not just responding for the sake of responding.

By opening up a private communication channel, you’re also confirming the validity of the review and allowing room for the complain to be heard.

Don’t Take Negative Reviews Down (Unless They’re Fake)

It’s important not to take down negative reviews unless they violate HIPAA or are otherwise unfairly slanderous against your practice (containing offensive language, etc.).

Aside from any legal considerations like violating HIPPA, the point of allowing reviews of your practice is to build trust. It may seem easier to only post positive reviews, but in the long term, you want to give patients the freedom of expression.

For some potential patients, it may seem unrealistic for all of the reviews to be positive.

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You should consider taking down a review if you believe it to be a fake review, however.

Sometimes reviewers will remain anonymous to protect their identity, and/or fail to reach out to you once you’ve responded. That doesn’t mean a review is fake.

Typically, there are some telltale signs of fake reviews, like using too many personal pronouns while lacking details, for instance.

If you believe a review to be fake, consider reaching out to the reviewer first to ensure that they are/were a patient at your practice. If this is not possible, contact the review site and ask for verification. If none is provided, and you’ve already responded, consider asking for the review to be taken down.

Heres a tip sheet on how to handle negative reviews about your practice.

Final Thoughts

Don’t get caught up in a few negative reviews.

If you respond correctly, they can actually be a positive for your practice.

Just remember to verify the review’s validity (ask around the office, ask the reviewer to explain via private message, etc.) and do your best to address the concerns as professionally as possible.

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