Healthcare providers retaliating against negative Yelp reviews by patients have revealed private patient information online. When responding to these reviews, doctors, dentists, chiropractors and other medical professionals have “divulged details of patients’ diagnoses, treatments and idiosyncrasies,” according to The Washington Post.
In many instances, divulging this information violates the standards set out by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which was enacted to ensure patient privacy. Anyone who has tried to get information about a sick or injured loved one from a healthcare provider and proverbially hit a brick wall because of the HIPAA, understands that the behavior of these doctors is shocking.
Yelp allows customers to write reviews about all types of services, from restaurant and shopping to education and healthcare. Founded in 2004, Yelp offers those with free personal accounts the opportunity to comment positively or negatively on their experiences with a particular service provider. Reviewers can simply rate a business from a low of one to a high of five stars, and add personal remarks. Of course, some people holding a personal grievance will give a service a bad review — even if they’ve never been to the establishment.
Yelp is far from the only entity permitting user reviews, and the doctors in question have put out personal patient information on other ratings sites.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
The HIPAA was established in 1996. The rules laid out by the HIPAA were the first national standards set for the protection of patient health information. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) website states that, under the HIPAA, certain “individually identifiable health information” is protected, including the following:
- the individual’s past, present or future physical or mental health or condition;
- the provision of healthcare to the individual; and
- the past, present, or future payment for the provision of healthcare to the individual.
Identifiable information includes the patient’s name, date of birth, Social Security number and address, among others.
Doctors and Yelp
No one likes criticism, especially if they believe it is unwarranted. It’s understandable that healthcare providers want to defend themselves against unfair accusations, but getting specific about a patient violates the law. The Washington Post article cited examples of healthcare providers responding to one star reviews on Yelp. Among them was a dentist accused by a patient as responsible for the loss of a molar. The dentist responded that the molar was lost because of the patient’s tooth-grinding habit, and it was not the first molar lost by the patient for this reason. Another dentist, accused of misdiagnosis, replied, “You can live in a world of denial and simply believe what you want to hear from your other dentist or make an educated and informed decision.” Healthcare providers have sued patients for negative reviews, although most of these suits did not get far.
The right response
A healthcare provider can reply to a review in a general way, as long as she doesn’t reveal personal information about the reviewer. If someone posts, “I did not receive good care,” it is perfectly acceptable for the provider to reply that all of her patients receive good care. It is not acceptable to reply that the person in question was uncooperative, not taking medication as instructed, or the like. Ideally, the provider requests that the reviewer contact them personally to discuss the issue.
If you’ve posted a negative review of a healthcare provider and received a response you feel violated your privacy rights, contact the HHS’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to file a complaint. However, you may not get very far. Historically, the OCR has not done much to punish even repeat HIPAA violation offenders. It is possible the healthcare provider in question may receive a warning letter, but it’s unlikely that any type of sanction will occur.
Handling bad reviews
If you’re a healthcare provider receiving what you feel are unfair or false reviews, avoid the impulse to call out a patient personally online. Contact the patient to discuss the situation and ask them to remove the review, if that is an option. You might have the review removed by the review site if it violates their terms of service. That’s true of any ad hominem attack. Respond to the poor review simply by stating you believe it violates the site’s terms of service and you are reporting it. If the review is truly libelous, contact an attorney. Proving libel is not an easy task, but your lawyer will advise you whether you have a case.
If you have a truly bad experience with a healthcare provider, you want to warn others. Post a factual, not emotional, review. If the provider violates your privacy in a response, file a complaint.