Clinical laboratories and pathology groups can benefit from developing a strategy for addressing negative Yelp reviews

In today’s wired world, clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups have a new challenge: what to do when unhappy patients go to social networking sites and post comments about their negative experience with their lab. A lab can have a sterling reputation for service and it can all unravel if a vociferous and angry patient posts rants on the Internet.

Today’s reality is that, like them or not, online reviews posted on websites such as Yelp are here to stay. That is why medical lab managers and pathologists should know about a recent court ruling that protects websites that feature consumer reviews about businesses.

One business owner who sued such a website learned this out the hard way—in court. A locksmith in Redmond, Wash., reportedly filed a libel lawsuit, claiming he lost 95% of his business after receiving a negative 1-star review on Yelp. Regardless, a federal appeals court ruled that Yelp’s star rating system, which is based on user input, does not make Yelp responsible for negative reviews of businesses, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The judges turned to the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects Websites from libel claims posted in third-party material, a Modern Healthcare article noted.

Yelp, other online rating services, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, have put the performance of healthcare providers into the public domain. Thus, pathologists and medical laboratory leaders would be wise to recognize that clinical laboratories are also subject to online reviews. Labs are advised to have a social media strategy for dealing with potentially negative reviews.

Furthermore, research studies have suggested that patients are beginning to depend on crowd-sourced reviews of healthcare providers for their decision-making, and that the data the reviews generate could find its way into government reports on provider quality-of-care.

61% of Patients Use Yelp and Other Online Reviews to Choose Doctors

Yelp, headquartered in San Francisco, publishes crowd-sourced reviews about local businesses, including clinical laboratories. During the third quarter of 2016, Yelp had about 174 million unique monthly visitors, noted a company fact sheet.

Yelp is the most popular choice for people reviewing doctors. Additionally, it shares the “most trusted” position with Healthgrades, according to Software Advice, a company that provides detailed reviews and research on thousands of software applications.

Software Advice’s 2014 survey of patients’ use of online reviews also found:

• 61% of patients use online surveys prior to choosing a doctor;

• 20% use the online surveys to evaluate a current doctor; and

• 44% will go out-of-network to see a doctor with favorable reviews.

Bad Review? Keep Your Cool

Sometimes reviews are not so favorable, and physicians and other providers need to have a plan for responding to negative reviews in ways that do not violate HIPAA privacy rules.

For example, hospital representatives could respond to negative reviews by posting a phone number and an offer to discuss the issue the negative reviewer experienced, noted the Modern Healthcare story.

“If the complaint is about poor patient care, [providers] can say, ‘I provide all of my patients with good patient care and I’ve been reviewed in other contexts and have good reviews.’ But they can’t take those accusations on individually by the patient,” advised Deven McGraw, Deputy Director for Health Information Privacy at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Acting Chief Privacy Officer for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), in a ProPublica article.

McGraw told ProPublica that a California hospital was fined $275,000 for revealing patient information without permission, allegedly in response to a patient’s complaint about the hospital in the media.

Deven McGraw (above) is Deputy Director for Health Information Privacy at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and is the Acting Chief Privacy Officer for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC). She reminds providers that it’s critical they do not individually identify patients when responding to negative online reviews. (Photo copyright: HealthIT.gov.)

Deven McGraw (above) is Deputy Director for Health Information Privacy at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and is the Acting Chief Privacy Officer for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC). She reminds providers that it’s critical they do not individually identify patients when responding to negative online reviews. (Photo copyright: HealthIT.gov.)

Yelp Could Influence Government Reports on Hospital Quality

People visiting Yelp may rank hospitals from one to five stars and provide narrative segments about their experiences.

A 2016 study at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn Medicine) suggests Yelp hospital reviews could improve government reports on hospital quality, according to a Penn Medicine statement.

Researchers compared about 17,000 Yelp reviews of 1,352 hospitals to HCAHPS reviews of the same providers. HCAHPS (pronounced H-CAPs) is an acronym for Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems, which started in 2006 to measure patient perspectives on hospital care in 11 categories.

About 42% of people reported reviewing social media sites for health-related consumer reviews. But only 6% of Americans had even heard of HCAHPS, the researchers noted. Additionally, Yelp’s hospital reviews cover topics HCAHPS reviews do not. Thus, the additional information could be included in government reports on hospital quality to influence patients’ decisions about where to receive care, noted the study, which was published in Health Affairs.

Areas covered by Yelp, but not HCAHPS, include:

• Cost of hospital visit;

• Insurance and billing;

• Ancillary testing;

• Facilities and amenities;

• Scheduling;

• Compassion of staff;

• Family member care, and

• Quality of various staff members.

Clinical Laboratories Need Strategy for Online Presence

Pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders are advised to explore their lab’s online presence and develop strategies for addressing negative reviews. For example:

• Adopt a strategy that makes clear who regularly reads online reviews about the lab.

• Work with marketing and digital media teammates to develop suggested responses and talking points.

• Set goals to increase the number of positive online reviews.

• Encourage patients to complete the lab’s online or written patient-satisfaction survey.

In a way, online reviews are opportunities to garner market research on your medical laboratory’s successes, to become comfortable addressing patient dissatisfaction, and to improve overall patient-satisfaction scores.

—Donna Marie Pocius

Related Information:

Yelp Not Liable for Bad Reviews

Appeals Court Rules Yelp Isn’t Liable for Bad Reviews of Hospitals and Doctors

Patients’ Use of Online Reviews

Stung by Yelp Reviews, Health Providers Spill Patient Secrets

Penn Medicine Study Suggests Yelp Reviews Can Enhance Government Reports on Hospital Quality

Yelp Reviews of Hospital Care Can Supplement and Inform Traditional Surveys of the Patient Experience of Care

How Yelp Reviews Can Help Improve Patient Care