April 18, 2011 | | Comments 0
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For better or for worse: Waivers for patient online reviews

When I first moved to a new city, I knew no one, including a primary care physician (PCP), gynecologist, dentist, no one. I asked friends of friends and my PCP from my old city for recommendations, but unfortunately, they didn’t have any for me. As a patient, I did the next logical step in my research and Googled physicians who belonged to my insurance network. I came across glowing reviews, as well as a few sour ones. Those online reviews were extremely helpful in selecting who my physicians would be.

A new trend, however, is putting a stop to those online reviews. More physicians are asking their patients to sign waivers restricting them from posting reviews online. Known as mutual privacy agreements, these documents are typically batched with other HIPAA agreements and initial patient paperwork that patients fill out before their examination.

User-generated reviews, written by patients, themselves, are open for public view. Patients can rate their physicians and appointment experience, both positively and negatively. Ratings and comments can include information about the physician’s licensure, schools attended, office location, disciplinary records, and even bedside manner. Some user-generated review websites include the following:

Even websites, such as Angie’s List and Yelp, which were traditionally review sites for restaurants and home services, now include consumer reviews of individual physicians.

Advocates for online patient reviews laud the public access of online rating websites with a platform to speak on and liken these mutual privacy agreements to essentially, medical gag orders, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. In a twisted quid-pro-quo (I’ll-keep-your-patient-secrets-if-you-keep-my-dirty-doctor-secrets) arrangement, the waivers prevent patients from posting any potential libelous information.

Proponents of the waivers, however, worry the perception data coming from these sites might not be entirely accurate. Does one patient’s experience represent the provider’s true competence and whole quality of care provided? Is the patient review even from a real patient (or someone posing as one such as a disgruntled office worker)?

Despite the controversy surrounding the validity of these types of physician review websites, the majority of the online reviews of physicians are positive, according to a study published in the May 13, 2010 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine. Researchers evaluated online reviews of 300 Boston physicians and 33 physician-rating websites. They found that 88% of online reviews were positive, 6% were negative, and another 6% were neutral. In the less-than-positive reviews, the users (assumingly, the patients) documented actionable comments to improve patient care; the reviews weren’t simply sound offs but instead a recommendation for improvement.

As a consumer, I would never sign a waiver at the restaurant door that wouldn’t allow me to Yelp about the food—it would certainly make me skeptical of the services—nor would I sign a waiver at a doctor’s office that prevented me from commenting on a physician’s performance. Out of professional courtesy and general Internet etiquette, I probably wouldn’t write a bad review of a physician in a public forum, instead opting to first provide feedback directly with my doctor’s office in a letter or phone call. Having said that though, I wouldn’t want that freedom restricted either to voice my opinion online if it came to it.

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Error: Unable to create directory uploads. Is its parent directory writable by the server? About the Author: Karen M. Cheung is the associate editor for HCPro, Inc., the healthcare compliance publisher, delivering news and information to the medical staff market with products such as books, e-newsletters, seminars, and broadcast events. Before arriving at HCPro, Karen served as the news editor for Reviewed.com (including DigitalCameraInfo.com and lead blogger for CamcorderInfo.com), providing unbiased tech reviews for the WashingtonPost.com. Having trained with The Washington Post photo department and earning a B.S. in Journalism from Boston University, Karen has experience with news and commercial photography. During her time in D.C., she covered Capitol Hill and the White House for daily New England newspapers.

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