by Rick Waters, DMD

online-reviewsWe’ve all heard horror stories about businesses that took serious hits due to bad online reviews. Health care providers are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to responding to those bad reviews due to HIPAA laws. One of the most often-asked questions by orthodontists is if it’s a good idea to address anonymous bad reviews. While it seems safe enough, imagine if the Web site changes its anonymity policy and allows real names to be posted; worse yet, what if you inadvertently post protected health information? It can happen. After all, who remembers when, where, and of whom they’ve posted reviews?

The good news is that bad reviews are preventable, and the best way is to do everything you can beforehand to make sure any reviews posted are positive reviews. You do that through exceptional in-office care. A doctor once asked me to help “clean up” her seven bad reviews on Google Places. When I read them, I found all seven said about the same thing. At that point, there was not much I could do to help. In truth, why would I want to?

Here are two simple strategies for helping prevent bad reviews: Invite patient complaints within your office using anonymous forms the patient can sign, and have a link on your Web home page that takes the patient to an anonymous survey site like SurveyMonkey where they can voice their discontent.

As far as repairing damage done, it helps to catch reviews early. Naturally, in spite of how painful it may be, you really DO want to know if something is amiss in your practice. A bad review can do that for you. I suggest using Google’s “Alerts” tool. Google’s powerful computers alert you to when select terms are posted online. This is not failsafe. Many sites like AngiesList require membership, meaning reviews posted on those sites don’t get collected by the Google Alerts system. So, it’s important that someone in your practice who is dependable and good online claim your business listings on sites like AngiesList, Yelp, Citysearch, Healthgrades, and RateMDs –- as well as any others available in your area. All of these sites should be checked monthly. The main pages on these sites usually have buttons for businesses to click on to create a business profile. It’s very important to review these sites regularly, since sites like Citysearch feed reviews to many other sites.

The bad news is that most bad reviews can be impossible to remove; fixing a problem is not easy. The best way may be to identify a violation of the site’s Terms of Service and follow that route. Another option is “inoculation,” which involves flooding the site and/or the Internet with legitimate favorable news, thereby pushing the bad review away from opening pages of any search result. Ask patients to go online and help out. Many people find it helpful to reply to a complaint using conciliatory language, reminding readers that they do everything they can to care for their patients, etc. All the while, be careful about what you say, specifically with regard to HIPAA. Finally, some sites allow you to contact the reviewer. If so, see what can be done to address their issue and if they are willing to modify their review.

Thirty years ago, an upset patient complained to 11 friends and family, but eventually dropped it. Now, that upset patient can tell 11,000 people almost instantly, and the complaint never ends. After all, nothing on the Internet is temporary. That’s probably the worst news of all.

Rick Waters, DMD, has helped manage online presence for professionals since 2005 and is a member of Google’s “Engage for Agencies” program. He practiced dentistry from 1986 to 1993, leaving due to a hand injury. Since then, he has worked freelance producing multimedia for nationally known dental consultants and clinicians, as well as major dental manufacturing firms. Dr Waters’ work has been recognized by The Videographer Awards four times. For more information, visit