How to respond to online patient reviews
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How to respond to online patient reviews

The consumer-led world we live in today means the traditional role of patients is fast becoming obsolete. A new breed of healthcare consumer is emerging, bringing with them a proactive approach to managing their own health and wellness, as well as a long list of demands for the healthcare system.

Online reviews – digital ‘word of mouth recommendations’ – can significantly impact a healthcare professional’s reputation. They often have a broad reach, can remain visible for a long time, and the anonymity of the reviewer can result in heightened negativity that may not have occurred in a face-to-face conversation. On the other side of the coin, positive reviews from patients can be very helpful for a practice, and provide a much-needed boost in patient numbers – particularly in areas where there’s significant competition.

When it comes to online reviews, there’s a lot of opinions and advice for healthcare practitioners to navigate, but what’s important to note is that there are strict guidelines governing how a practice or practitioner can respond to, and use, patient reviews. While studies show there are far more positive reviews about GPs than negative ones, it’s important to know where reviews about you and your practice are being published, and the best way to deal with them.

Where are reviews being posted?

There are several platforms and websites which allow patients to rate and comment about medical practices and individual doctors. The most popular websites for healthcare reviews include Doctors, bestdoctors and whitecoat. These websites allow users to search for and compare GPs, dentists, physios and other healthcare practitioners, and rate and review their experience with them.

The Doctors directory, as an example, encourages practices to create a free profile as a way of attracting new patients and bookings, and building patient engagement. Once a practice is listed on Doctors, users can rate individual practitioners on punctuality, attention, facilities and price. The website does have a moderation process which prevents comments about a patient’s treatment, and defamatory content, from being published.

Google reviews and Yelp are also used by patients to review medical practitioners, with fewer restrictions on the type of feedback that can be posted. A practice that creates a Google My Business listing would do so because they can connect with more people who are looking for healthcare services through Google Search and Google Maps. The profile includes basic details such as the address, phone number, website, opening hours and services provided, as well as customer reviews and star ratings. In a Google search, a practice with a large number of reviews will often be at the top of the search results, leading to greater visibility and website traffic.

How do I respond to a negative review?

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has created a factsheet to help GP practices deal with online reviews. Their general recommendation is to do nothing –  their position is that a negative comment is usually not worth responding to. One reason for this is that an irrational or emotionally-charged comment is unlikely to have significant consequences (as other people can see the reviewer is just letting off steam) and responding to it won’t necessarily change the person’s perspective or result in a positive outcome.

However, it is up to you whether you’d like to respond to a review or not. If you do choose to respond, here are some guiding principles to keep in mind:

  • Consider if the review raises legitimate concerns. The patient could be venting about areas that you’re able to address, such as the wait time, the way they were treated in reception, or an administrative issue. This type of feedback should be seen as an opportunity to make improvements to the patient experience where possible. In this instance, a simple ‘Thank you for your feedback’, and a general comment about how you intend to address the feedback, could be an appropriate reply.
  • Avoid responding to feedback about a patient’s clinical experience or treatment. There are strict health practitioner regulations in regards to privacy. Responding to comments of that nature could inadvertently put the practice in breach of those guidelines. Practices aren’t allowed to respond in a way that confirms whether or not the patient attended the practice, and what treatment they received.
  • There are some basic guidelines for how businesses – in any industry – respond to negative reviews. These include:
    • Respond in a timely manner
    • Be polite and calm
    • Keep responses simple and succinct
    • Try to resolve the problem offline.
  • An important tip to remember is that it is often how the business responds to a review that is more important than the review itself. While people might read what a disgruntled person has to say about their experience with a business, they’re often more interested in seeing how the business responds.

Can practices remove a negative review?

It can be very difficult, if not impossible, to have a review removed. Most websites and platforms won’t remove a negative review simply because it is disagreed upon, as legitimate reviews – both positive and negative – are seen as an important part of consumer research and decision making. If a review is in clear breach of a website’s own policies or terms of use – such as content that is defamatory, abusive or fake, these reviews can, and should, be removed. Contact the website directly, and ask for the content to be removed on that basis. If that doesn’t result in any action, it may be necessary to seek legal advice, or to contact the reviewer (if they are identifiable) and try to resolve the issue offline.

Can practices use positive reviews in their advertising?

Australian Law prevents health practitioners from using testimonials that discuss a patient’s clinical experience to advertise their business or services. An advertising offence can attract a fine of up to $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for a body corporate.

General feedback about a patient’s non-clinical experience (such as comments about the facilities), can be used in practice advertising, provided you have the patient’s permission, as well as permission from the website on which the review was originally posted. It’s important to note that while minor edits can be made to a review that’s being used for advertising purposes, editing a review in a way that changes its original meaning, is not permitted.

These days, navigating online reviews is part of the experience of being a healthcare practitioner and operating a medical practice. While receiving any type of negative feedback can be distressing, it’s important to understand that there are guidelines on how to respond. Ultimately, consumer reviews that are provided fairly and legitimately can give people useful information to help them make informed decisions around their healthcare, as well as encouraging practices to offer the best patient experience possible.

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