What to do about online reviews?

Sector news
29 August 2018

The launch of www.Whitecoat.co.nz earlier this month has raised concern amongst members of the risk unfair or misinformed posts made by disgruntled patients.

Whitecoat is an online rating website, launched in Australia in 2013 by health insurer nib. It allows patients to publicly rate their experiences with their health professionals, including their GP. 

While Whitecoat is not the first or only online platform patients can use to provide online reviews of health professionals, its arrival in New Zealand presents an opportunity to look at the options GPs have when responding to any kind of online feedback.

College Medical Director and e-health ambassador Dr Richard Medlicott cautions members that there’s no cause for panic. 

“Online platforms like this have been popping up all over the show for years - it’s not unique. We live in an era of ubiquitous information, and there are a multitude of ways for people to publicly share their thoughts,” says Richard.

“This type of rating system is happening to all kinds of businesses, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it is happening to ours. It’s a double-edged sword: while there may be some benefit in seeing what people are saying, it may also be potentially stressful and demoralising.”

It is understood nib will be contacting listed health professionals inviting them to either approve their profile, or opt out.

Whitecoat’s moderation guidelines make it clear reviews are expected to be respectful. Its feedback ‘principles’ says comments should not be offensive, not identify a person and, importantly, they must not be of a clinical nature.

In a recent media article, CEO Matthew Donnellan pointed out that of the 800,000 reviews published in Australia, 93 percent were positive. However, what can you do if you’re the subject of an unfavourable review?

Here’s some general advice that will be applicable to any online review site:

1. Respond directly using the source platform

Most online review sites will have a moderation process and a method for dealing with complaints. Keep a record of the offending review (a screenshot is probably the best option), then contact the platform owner to request moderation or removal.

In the case of Whitecoat, in preparing your complaint you should read Whitecoat’s moderation guidelines, identify which guideline the review breaches, and quote this in your complaint.

2. Report the situation to Netsafe

If you are not happy with the online provider’s response to your complaint, you can report the situation to Netsafe. Again, you would need to provide a screenshot and a link to the offending review, alongside your letter of complaint.

3. Seek recompense via the Harmful Digital Communications Act

While operating in New Zealand, Whitecoat needs to comply with the Harmful Digital Communications Act. The Act provides that digital communications should not:

- disclose sensitive personal facts about an individual

- be threatening, intimidating or menacing

- be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the position of the affected individual

- be used to harass an individual

- make a false allegation

- incite or encourage an individual to commit suicide.

If an online post or review meets any of these criteria, the subject of the review can ask for it to be removed – and the provider must do so within 48 hours or they could be subject to investigation and a court order to remove the content. It is worth noting that the threshold for using this Act is fairly high, so this would typically be seen as a last resort.

Netsafe advises that “Anyone who is concerned about this website [Whitecoat] can also write a complaint to the .nz Domain Name Commission who issue and manage .nz websites.  However, they will need to pinpoint which of the .nz policies they feel the website breaches.”  

Richard Medlicott adds that, of some consolation, there is evidence that patients do not put much faith in rating services when it comes to medical care.


MCNZ guidance

The Medical Council prohibits health professionals from soliciting testimonials from patients; however point 13 of MCNZ’s Statement of Advertising acknowledges doctors are “not responsible for unsolicited testimonials or comments that are published on a website, in social media or other forms of media over which you [they] do not have control.”

Further reading

You may like to read this BMC Health Services Research article for more information on the topic: Popularity of internet physician rating sites and their apparent influence on patients’ choices of physician.