Physician reputation management in the age of social media

What is the physician’s most precious possession?  Some might answer that it is his patients.

Others might respond it is the training and education that the physician has obtained to practice his (or her’s) craft.

But the real answer is that it’s the physician’s reputation.

Doctors live and die by their reputations.  Reputations take years to build but are so fragile that they can crumble quickly.  It may take months or years to erect a building which a bulldozer can take down in a day.  In this era of online communications and social media, our reputations can be attacked in a nanosecond.  Using that building metaphor, it is like imploding a building with a stick of dynamite and leveling it to the ground in a pile of rubble in seconds.

It is likely that a patient, or even a fellow physician, can target your practice using the Internet and especially with the ease of using social media can wreck havoc on your reputation and on your practice.

What can you do to protect yourself?  As physicians we live and die by our reputations.  We spend our whole professional lives creating and protecting our reputations.  In the past it was negative word of mouth that was our main concern.

It is a known marketing and public relations dictum that a satisfied patient/customer/client tells 3-5 people about a positive experience; whereas a patient with a negative experience with the doctor or the practice is likely to tell 10-20 others.  The Internet and social media has changed that.  Now a person with gripe, a negative comment can make themselves “heard” in just moments and can get their negative thoughts out to thousands of viewers in just minutes.  What is a doctor to do when there are negative or defamatory comments made on the Internet?

I electronically attended Dr. Kevin Pho’s keynote presentation to the Texas Medical Association on social media.  A member of the audience asked, “What is a doctor to do when there are negative comments made on medical review sites?”  Dr. Pho suggested that doctors make an effort to counter-balance the negative comments with positive comments.  I have found a very effective method of generating positive comments that I use on my website and also on medical review sites.

It is quite common for a patient to make a nice comment about my staff or about the care they received in my office when I am with the patient in the exam room.  I ask the patient if I might include their comment on my website as a testimonial.  Nearly every patient concurs and I have a release form (see below) in the exam room and I write out exactly what the patient said and have them sign it, which gives me permission to use their positive comments on my website.

This is an effective, yet ethical, method of generating positive comments about you and your practice.

Sample release form:

I, [patient's name], authorize Dr. Neil Baum to use my testimonial on his website, www.neilbaum.com

Signed,

[patient's name]

Neil Baum is a urologist at Touro Infirmary and author of Marketing Your Clinical Practices: Ethically, Effectively, Economically. He can be reached at his self-titled site, Neil Baum, MDor on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • http://www.medicallessons.net Elaine Schattner

    Troubling to think that some physicians would consider patients as possessions or assets.

  • http://www.jinqiuyu.com QJ

    The problem with testimonials is that more and more people consider them “fake” since they are controlled by the owner of the website. Sometimes adding testimonials even makes people more distrustful and wont to go look for those public reviews.

    Don’t worry so much about negative comments, as long as there are only a few of them compared to the positive ones. They actually can be reassuring, especially if the content is not of interest to the viewer.

  • http://www.howardluksmd.com Howard Luks

    I would go so far as to recommending that physicians allow patients to place testimonials directly on their site. It is up to the doc whether or not they want to moderate the comments. This has proven to be very well received by my patients ….

    When vitals, healthgrades, etc allow physicians to address comments or open up a two way dialogue, these sites will be far more productive… IMHO.

    QJ… I *think* u are correct. Many sites might fudge their testimonials… I can assure you that many of us do not…
    http://goo.gl/0sqvP
    HJL

    • http://www.vitals.com Gina Larson-Stoller

      Howard, I work at Vitals, and can tell you that we do allow physicians to log in and respond to any review. We also have a Physician Relations team that doctors can contact if they suspect an unfair rating.

      In general, however, Vitals believes that the best way to overcome negative comments is to neutralize them with positive comments. In fact, we have free cards for doctors to hand out to patients to encourage them to leave positive reviews on Vitals. If you would like some, contact me at gina @ vitalsdotcom.

  • http://myheartsisters.org Carolyn Thomas

    Allow me to share a unique perspective on this important subject as one who has worked in the public relations field for 38+ years.

    Two deplorable marketing practices called “ASTROTURFING” and “SOCK PUPPETRY” are, alas, often seen in some circles. “Astroturfing” refers to campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, individual or company but designed to mask their true origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular “grassroots” behavior. (The term refers to ‘AstroTurf’ – a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass). In online astroturfing, stakeholders (often employees ordered to do so by their boss!) pose as independent consumers to post positive web reviews about the organization/individual/company. This is why, as QJ accurately states here, many are suspicious of online testimonials. In PR, “perception IS reality” – whether the nice testimonials are genuine or not.

    “Sock puppetry” is the online practice of signing on as one user/client soliciting recommendations for a specific service provider or product. Same person then signs on as a different user pretending to be a satisfied customer of a specific service provider/product. In some jurisdictions and circumstances, this type of activity may be (and should be) illegal. A number of pharmaceutical company employees have admitted to participating in online patient forums for just this purpose.

    Dr. Baum, I think Dr. Luks’ suggestion about encouraging patients to send in their OWN testimonials on your website in the form of a comment may actually be far more credible to the average web visitor. Testimonial-writers can be accused of astroturfing, while comment-writers cannot.

    More on this at: “Sock Puppetry, Astroturfing, and The Marketing Shill Game” on The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics For The Easily Swayed – http://ethicalnag.org/2010/03/22/shill-game/

  • JoAnne

    I don’t find Dr. Baum’s activities to be ethical at all, even if he does. If Dr. Baum would like to suggest that the patient leave his or her comment on a rating site (and even, perhaps, go so far as to provide a handout with the names of the sites and their internet addresses if he is really that desperate), then that might be fine. I am not, however, comfortable with his feeling the need to post these comments himself “on their behalf.” If a doctor asked my permission to do that, I would be uncomfortable and suspicious – my first thought would be, “Why is this guy asking me to do this when I can just post the comment myself?”

    If you’re not getting enough positive rating feedback, my suggestion would be to try to step back and think objectively about why the negative feedback is occurring. Then you can work on correcting whatever is making your patients unhappy. This seems much more ethical and much more wise than filling out comments FOR your patients. That, to me, stoops to the level of some car or insurance salespeople.

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