The Best Responses to Negative Reviews

Sometimes the best response to a negative online patient review is no response at all. But, if a physician decides not to let sleeping dogs lie, there are right and wrong ways to respond.

Word of mouth used to be the way news spread; today it’s Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. Adele Cehrs, president of Alexandria, Va.-based Epic PR Group, says the need for transparency in social media has made it much more important for physicians to pay attention to what’s happening online.

“Before, [physicians] could kind of neglect bad patient reviews every once in a while,” Cehrs says. “They relied on good word-of-mouth marketing to kind of circumvent some of that. But now, they just have to be really diligent. And they have to actually invest some time and some resources into dealing with these issues, because their online brand reputation can really stay with them.”

The key question is two-fold: should physicians respond to negative online patient reviews; and, if so, how?

Ignore or address?

Cehrs explains that there’s no concrete data available about the impact a poorly planned response to a customer review can have on a business, but she points to her own recent experience with an OB/GYN that was very telling.

According to Cehrs, the physician said something inappropriate. Wondering whether she was just being hypersensitive or not, Cehrs went online and checked Yelp for reviews and found that approximately 10 patients had posted negative comments about the same physician.

“I personally didn’t write anything, but if 10 people went on, just think about all the people who don’t post when they’re angry,” Cehrs says. “And the physician never addressed any of the issues. They just continued to ignore it, and people will go having these negative conversations.”

However, sometimes it might be best to let sleeping dogs lie. Attorney David Wachen says that sometimes responding to a negative review can only bring attention to the situation and make matters much worse.

“It’s called the Streisand Effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who had this issue involving photographs of her home,” Wachen explains. “She brought a lot of attention to it, and all of a sudden people are looking at it on the Internet. Sometimes, it’s best not responding at all.”

Measure the approach

Suppose, however, you want to respond because you feel the patient posted something out of context, or isn’t providing the full story. Cehrs says that if you’re going to respond, you have to do so using positive language instead of engaging in an argument.

“You should respond with positive language, and do so promptly,” she says and suggests saying things like, “We’re sorry about your experience. Please contact us at this phone number and we’ll be happy to discuss the situation with you.”

Wachen agrees that attacking the patient is counterproductive.

“The doctor might be completely right, but is that going to be the most effective way to respond from a public relations standpoint, thinking about future and prospective patients?” Wachen points out.

Sometimes the decision to respond or not can be determined by the severity of the patient’s posting — is it fact, or opinion? Wachen points out that a patient might post something like, “This doctor was abrupt. He didn’t spend enough time with me, and it seemed like he didn’t care about me as a patient.” It could all be opinion; but as a physician, do you want to leave comments like that unaddressed?

Physicians sometimes need to step back and acknowledge to themselves that if that’s not how they normally do business, that maybe the patient caught them on a bad day. In that case, find a positive way to respond.

Since some postings are anonymous, the physician could try the following approach: “I’m really sorry. That’s really not the way I like to work with my patients. I really care about my patients. And, I’m sorry that you had that experience. I wish I knew who you were, so I could contact you individually off-line and let you know how bad I feel about your experience.”

Responding in that manner, Wachen says, almost neutralizes the negative comment.

Get legal advice

Wachen says that while all negative comments are unappealing, and the initial instinct is to fight back, it’s important to instead step back, take a deep breath, and speak with legal counsel or someone with experience in similar situations. Weigh both the positive and negative aspects of a response.

“And decide how likely it is that other people are actually going to see [the original posting],” Wachen says. “If you fire off a response, or file a lawsuit, you’re just giving the situation greater prominence.”