Responding to negative reviews while remaining HIPAA compliant can be tricky

There’s no denying the overwhelming popularity of third party review sites: Yelp alone averages 167 million unique users every month1, and practitioner sites like Healthgrades and Vitals continue to impact both search results and patient decisions. In healthcare, even the most resistant physicians and provider organizations are beginning to embrace transparency in patient experience by monitoring and soliciting reviews to build credibility with prospective patients and boost visibility in local search.

But how do you respond when the reviews start rolling in? If it’s positive, your task is simple: thank patients for their loyalty and for taking the time to share their experience. The tricky part comes when the feedback isn’t as flattering, made all the more complicated when you add in patient privacy concerns.

Not to worry. Here are 10 tips for responding to negative reviews – and turning unhappy patients into loyal brand ambassadors:

1. Don’t ignore them. Perhaps you’re afraid of bringing the issue any extra attention. Or the complaint is so off-base it’s just not worth addressing. Truth is, negative reviews are opportunities. They’re your chance to engage with patients in meaningful ways, get valuable feedback to transform your practice and show prospective clients that you’re willing to own mistakes.

2. Take a little time to respond. On the flip side, you don’t want to be so eager to reply that you let emotion get in the way. It’s natural to see a negative review as a personal slight. It may come from your passion for delivering high-quality care. Or, maybe you feel a patient is unappreciative when your organization has done everything possible in complex circumstances. That’s why it’s best to take a few minutes – perhaps even a day – to understand the patient’s experience in that particular situation so you can deliver a calm and respectful response.

3. Be objective. Valid or not, negative reviews help you see the world from the patient’s perspective.

Ask yourself:

  • Why did this happen, and why did the patient feel this way?
  • Is there something we could have done to prevent it?
  • Have we heard this before?
  • Should we consider a change or improvement?

When you have your answers, don’t be defensive or try to justify your side. Instead, recognize the concerns, address legitimate complaints and politely correct any inaccurate information.

4. Thank the reviewer. While it’s never fun to get called out, consider: for every customer who complains, 26 others remain silent2, even if they had the same experience. Be gracious and acknowledge patients for taking the time to voice their opinion openly and honestly and let them know how they’re helping you improve the care you provide to patients.

5. Get specific. If a patient mentions something in particular about their experience – be it lack of parking or poor bedside manner – address that concern directly in your reply. Describe any relevant improvements or alternatives, like a new online scheduling system if they protested about wait times. Doing so not only shows that you’re not a robot but also makes the patient feel heard and understood.

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6. PROTECT PATIENT CONFIDENTIALITY. Remember that even though the conversation is online, you’re still interacting with a patient and must comply with the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA). Learn from some of the mistakes healthcare providers have made in the past. If the patient’s complaint is about your medical advice or his/her condition, diagnosis or treatment, you can’t respond publicly without breaking confidentiality. Post a generic but genuine reply, thanking the reviewer for the comment and asking him or her to contact you offline to address specific concerns. Here is an example of a genuine response that addresses specific issues without breaking confidentiality:

Because of privacy regulations, we can’t discuss any specifics about your comments. However, we are committed to providing you high quality care, and we take your feedback very seriously. Reducing wait times is one of the most challenging aspects of our hospital, so we recently hired a consultant to help us improve our scheduling methods and avoid these kinds of problems in the future. Please take a look at the private message we have sent you to contact our patient experience office directly. We are happy to discuss additional details to resolve this matter with you.

7. Offer to take the conversation offline. There are advantages to responding publically – namely, building credibility online with prospective patients. However, if the reviewer is extremely upset or needs help, consider sending a private message or asking him or her to call your office to work things out. It ensures the reviewer that you genuinely want to fix the situation for them, not just for the digital audience.

8. Don’t ask patients to take their reviews down. Even if you ask politely, making the request isn’t in your best interest. Aside from ethical (and perhaps legal) considerations, it creates distrust and undermines the doctor-patient relationship. Besides, most people know that patients have both positive and negative experiences and that no business can please all of its customers every time. So, focus on resolving their complaints; done correctly the patient may consider changing or updating the review on their own.

9. Fight fake reviews. If the negative review in question is clearly not from a concerned patient, or is unrelated to you or your organization, reach out to the site and provide evidence. Review sites don’t like fake reviews, either – though they will only consider removing them if they violate very specific rules (e.g., contains offensive language, raises privacy concerns, etc.). Here are some general review removal guidelines from sites like Google, Facebook and Yelp.

10. Use what you’ve learned. Your job isn’t done when you hit the reply button. Always take any legitimate patient complaints and use them to rethink policies and future enhancements for your healthcare organization.

Don’t fret over a single bad review. As we’ve just discussed, you should respond and learn from it, but don’t dwell on it because your prospective patients are looking at the whole picture and not just at a single negative instance. Bad reviews will happen. What the health consumer will consider is how you’ve handled them.

Lastly, patient reviews give healthcare organizations invaluable insights that can help optimize patient care and experience. Even when the patient’s opinion may not be accurate, it is true to them, and it reflects the way others are likely to perceive your brand. The best thing for your organization to do is use the findings to make changes that matter most to those you serve.

Want for More Tips from the Digital Presence Experts?

Call 888-633-7335 or request your free digital presence assessment today. Influence Health’s Reputation Management solution provides real-time insights into what’s being said about your brand online, including tools to monitor, solicit and respond to online reviews.

1Yelp Factsheet

215 Statistics That Should Change The Business World – But Haven't, Beyond Philosophy via Lee Resources, International