marketing legal issuesExperienced doctors tell us that, sooner or later in their career, every physician will face the prospect of legal action. Between 75 and 99 percent of practicing doctors, depending on their specialty, will be threatened by a lawsuit according to a NEJM study.

Although “patient-sues-doctor” rarely makes the news, the reverse situation—doctor-sues-patient—seems to make the headlines with regularity. And the core issue is a negative or unflattering online rating or comment by a patient about a doctor. But the outcome is seldom satisfactory.

Patients are increasingly engaged and empowered regarding their healthcare, due in part by the pervasive Internet. Doctors are understandably—and justifiably—concerned about their professional reputation…also with added muscle of view-anywhere web postings.

In a previous post, Legally Dumb: Should a Doctor or Dentist Sue a Patient for Bad-Mouth Comments?, we sympathized with a practitioner’s frustration and outright anger. Negative comments and online reviews can be untrue, unkind and one sided. But, from a public relations perspective, suing a patient for a negative comment just might be the worst thing to do. In PR terms it likely will grab new and broader media attention, repeat and extend the controversy, patients may sympathize with patients, and generally inflame the original issue.

Bad-mouth comments on personal blogs and collective-comment review sites can be influential among patients and prospective patients. There are dozens of user forums that has expanded to include Angie’s List (initially home improvement services), and Yelp (initially reviews of local restaurants).

Some news reports, The Boston Globe for example, suggest that doctors are firing back at patients’ online critiques, but with mixed results.

“The Digital Media Project at Harvard University tracks lawsuits filed against patients and others for online comments. Its website includes seven such cases filed over the past five years or so, though it’s not a comprehensive list. In some, patients took down their negative comments. In others, judges dismissed the suit, ruling that patients’ comments were protected under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.”

We’re not offering legal advice here, but as another recent indicator, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that an online post about a Duluth neurologist is protected speech. And, according to the AP story about this ruling, “Experts say lawsuits over negative professional reviews are relatively uncommon and rarely succeed, partly because the law favors freedom of speech.”

Seeking professional legal counsel is sound advice for your situation. Our previous post lists some of the possible public relations consequences that should be considered, as well as observations from noted healthcare attorney Stephen Kaufman.

RELATED READING: See Protecting Your Reputation: Doctors Who Ignore Social Media Are at Risk, and Reputation Equals Revenue: What’s Your Review Site Strategy? And some of the legal issues in the Minnesota matter are outlined here.

Lonnie Hirsch

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Stewart Gandolf

Stewart Gandolf

Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder at Healthcare Success Strategies
Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is CEO of Healthcare Success, a medical marketing and health care advertising agency. He is also a frequent writer and speaker. Most importantly, he is happily married and a "rock-n-roll daddy" to two wonderful girls.
Stewart Gandolf
Stewart Gandolf


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