Patients who feel that a physician’s negligence contributed to a poor outcome can file medical malpractice lawsuits. They can go online and describe their situations on Angie’s List, Yelp, and personal blogs. It turns out that at least some physicians are fighting back, complicating the legal landscape.
One Massachusetts surgeon recently filed a defamation lawsuit against the husband of a patient and the website where he posted the story of his wife’s illness and death after being treated by the surgeon. It turns out that this case is not unique. According to the director of the Center for Media Law and Policy at the University of North Carolina, the Internet, “has realigned the power structure that existed between doctors and patients.” Patients now have far more influence than they have ever had, and “[d]octors have reacted with a great deal of hostility toward this.”
A project at Harvard University has tracked negative online comments about doctors and subsequent defamation lawsuits by those doctors. So far, they have identified seven cases, including that of the Massachusetts surgeon mentioned here. The actual number is much larger, because patients have either taken down their negative comments, or judges have dismissed the physicians’ lawsuits, saying that Internet comments by patients are protected speech and cannot be used as the basis for lawsuits. In some instances, doctors who have filed defamation claims have been required to pay the defendants’ legal costs.
For doctors, going to court has many downsides, but the biggest is that it draws attention to negative comments about medical malpractice. Some say that the medical community will need to be more proactive in managing reputations by encouraging patients to post positive comments – in the same way that many hotels and restaurants ask satisfied customers to review them on Internet travel sites.
But is an indifferent meal really the same as a fatality or poor outcome due to medical negligence? Doctors will need to decide whether they wish to fight back when charged with negligence, either within the legal system or in the court of public opinion.
Source: Boston Globe, “Doctors firing back at patients’ online critiques,” by Liz Kowalczyk, Mar. 31, 2013.