Issue 43 / 14 November 2011

VITROLIC reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, where consumers rant about the rudest waiters in town or the giant cockroaches that ruined their dining experience, often raise a chuckle.

All harmless fun you might think. But what happens when anonymous online reviewers turn their attention to doctors rather than restaurants?

“I would not send my neighbour’s cat to see this man”, is what one Queensland patient wrote on, an international site that allows public rating of Australian clinicians. “Have a car accident, cut your foot off, anything is better than going to see this fool.”

Of course, there are lots of positive ratings of doctors on the site too — in fact, from a quick browse the bouquets seem to well and truly outnumber the brickbats. However, it does raise the question of what recourse doctors have when they are subjected to anonymous, and possibly unjustified, criticism in this way.

Few would probably want to go as far as a Chicago surgical practice that is currently suing Google for more than $US50 million ($A49 million) over allegedly libellous and inaccurate comments made by patients online.

According to court documents posted on file sharing website Scribd, one supposed patient libelled the practice by claiming the injectable fillers she received had caused “facial lumps”.

The same critic also alleged that one of the practice’s medical professionals, known only as “Jane Doe”, had posted fake patient reviews online that praised her own work and that of her colleagues.

Although the anonymity granted to these doctors will go some way towards protecting them from a common unintended side effect of libel suits — that of spreading the original comments to a wider audience — legal action is generally a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to protecting reputation. (Doctors posting fake patient reviews sounds like an even worse one.)

The hard truth is that there probably isn’t a lot doctors can do to protect themselves from this kind of cyber attack, apart from doing their best to ensure any criticism is undeserved.

With consumers increasingly seeking advice online for any decision, whether it’s on buying a new car or choosing an obstetrician, even the most caring and diligent doctor could face an online spray from a patient who’s unhappy with an outcome, or simply at being made to wait too long for an appointment.

It’s not all bad news, though. Consumers don’t necessarily believe everything they read online, particularly if one negative comment is accompanied by half a dozen others from satisfied patients.

Just as some contributors damn a hotel for noise levels that others label as “great vibe”, patients’ overall impressions of doctors can be influenced by a myriad of expectations and prejudices. In the opinionated, anonymous and often vicious world of modern cyberspace, savvy readers are well aware of these complex interplays.

And you couldn’t buy advertising to rival some of the reviews, such as this one for a Sydney suburban practitioner: “Excellent GP, caring and knowledgeable, gives you the time you need … wonderful, efficient nurses … magnificent office environment — very comfortable …”

No cockroaches there. In fact, it sounds like a five-star rating.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 14 November 2011

8 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: A scathing review

  1. Anonymous says:

    I recall checking one of these sites in relation to a doctor about whom a string of complaints had been made. There were several uncomplimentary ratings, none of which surprised me in the light of the complaints under investigation. Several days later the adverse comments were all gone, replaced by glowing endorsements of the practitioner concerned. The site claimed it published comments without fear or favour, but clearly it had been got at in some way in this case, presumably by legal threat.
    The internet provides a great outlet for the disgruntled and the crazies. It also can be a wonderful tool for disseminating unwelcome truths. The trick is to be able to work out which is which.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Just checked our local area feedback only to find one of the highest rated doctors was one I know has caused a number of “medical misadventures.” Ratings will be subjective and can falsely reassure as surely as they can falsely malign.

  3. Mia says:

    It is clear that none of the authors of the above comments attempted ever to make a complaint to the HCCC – otherwise they would have found out just how ‘toothless’/impotent it is.
    ‘No win-no fee cases’ are only taken on by plaintiff lawyers if it is evidently a winning case, and easy to pursue and the general public is rarely in the situation to be able to fund a legal case when ‘no win-no fee’ is not available – quite a protection to medical professionals right there!
    So where can these people turn? Yes, there are stories from time to time in the media (often very badly handled by the …professionals, journalists themselves). But when “Safety breaches in Australian healthcare are killing more people than breast cancer or road accidents,” it is clear that many complaints are not addressed either by HCCC or the court system – and “only 6% of the complaints will be finalised through court decision”, and even then: “many claims in Australia do not result in payments to plaintiffs. This fact often comes as a surprise to medical practitioners as it is not well publicised.”
    So what is left for those who are lost in between the ‘cracks’ of the system? There is no doubt that some will misuse and abuse the freedom allowed by the anonymity of the internet, but there has to be a platform where those rendered voiceless can at least tell their story and warn others.
    At the end, the review websites are just one facet of democracy.

  4. Oliver Frank says:

    A very positive review of my caring nature and high level of medical skills appeared at the same time as an identical one for a colleague in a nearby practice, with whom I had just been discussing this new facility.

    What an amazing coincidence. Isn’t the ability to post anonymously to web sites a wonderful thing?

  5. Welcome to the 21st Century! says:

    Get used to it doctors! The Internet’s both a wonderful and exciting tool & a potential source of great pain & suffering. Kudos on one site, libel on another, your publications & comments revealing your stance on a whole host of others. And if you stuff up professionally, you’ll hit the daily newspapers & forever appear on page one of Google, regardless of inaccuracies. News corporations won’t remove incorrect material unless ordered to do so by the Australian Press Council ………..a very rare event!! Doctors shouldn’t hesitate to obtain advice from one of the numerous online reputation management companies that now exist. For a price, they can have the negative stuff pushed down the page &/or
    newly crafted positive stories placed widely across the net. It’s a game & it has players on both sides.

  6. Bruni Brewin says:

    I also feel that to make a complaint on an public forum over anything or anybody should not be permitted – but if we are going to put legislation to avoid that for doctors only that would be prejudicial and it should be for everything. That is just not feasible. Some people see the complaint mechanism in place as being discriminatory and so wish to vent their feelings elsewhere. But every person, even me responding to this article, are required to put in our email details, so although the complainant does not wish to put their name (and I have seen people on this forum put their identity as anonymous), it could be picked up and further investigated. I don’t see why a forum or the internet provider should be found to be at fault, they are simply providing a service for people to have a voice. This is no more or less than Facebook cyber bullying at its most extreme and those with a brain in their head would dismiss it as gossip. As someone put it so well – yesterday’s top newspaper item is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper.

  7. Sue Ieraci says:

    Users of such sites need to be at least as skeptical as for any other rating site – be it for travel, restaurants, practitioners in other fields. Any anonymous comment from an unverifiable source is not worth the paper it’s (not) written on!

  8. Harry Haber says:

    I would like to comments on the rating of doctors on the internet. Firstly complaint over treatment on a public forum by a unidentified person is malicious and should not be permitted. Secondly there is a complaint mechanism in place, the Health Care Complaints Act 1993, and this is the proper manner to register a complaint. Finally the rating should be abolished and that respect for the law which deals with complaints should be recognised.

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