Healthcare News & Insights

Doctors’ attempt to silence patient reviews backfires

Some health care providers are attempting to squelch patients’ complaints. And the tactic could be bad news for everyone. It’s becoming more common for doctors, dentists and other health providers to ask patients to sign special agreements, sometimes known as “mutual privacy agreements” before the provider will even see the patient. These agreements are ostensibly meant to protect the patient’s privacy, but some legal experts question the agreements’ effectiveness as well as how ethical they are.

Take the case of Dr. Ken Cirka, a well-regarded Philadelphia dentist. Cirka was using an agreement provided by Medical Justice, one of several firms providing “reputation protection” services to doctors. One new patient, a writer, balked at the terms of the agreement, which included language that would transfer ownership of any public commentary on his experiences at the practice to the dentist. He was also disturbed that neither Cirka nor his office staff seemed to understand (or be able to explain) the terms of the agreement they expected him to sign.

The would-be patient, Timothy E. Lee, wrote about his experience here. In the wake of the article, Cirka’s practice was bombarded with negative feedback on review sites such as Yelp from patients (and alleged patients) who were turned off by the agreement. (Cirka says his practice no longer uses the agreement.)

Cirka, and other providers like him, appear to be using the agreements as a way to control their online reputation — a smart move for any professional. But as Cirka learned, one misstep in the world of social media can backfire and harm an otherwise thriving practice by creating the exact kind of negative feedback they’re trying to avoid in the first place.

Also troubling: It’s unlikely these agreements that companies are pushing on health care organizations are either practical or legally enforceable. So the money and energy spent getting patients to sign the agreement give the practice little to no protection if a patient does discuss their experiences with a doctor publicly.

Is it ethical?

Pragmatism aside, some ethicists say asking patients to sign the agreements is inherently unethical, since it squelches a patient’s ability to freely share information with other prospective patients. And some of the agreements are of questionable accuracy. In the case mentioned above, the agreement written by Medical Justice promised patients that it provided stronger protections of their health information than HIPAA does because it prevented doctors from selling patient info for marketing purposes — a loophole that was closed long ago.

In a time when health care providers are being pushed to use more social media whether they want to or not, are agreements like these a good idea that needs tweaking, or something to be avoided? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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