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After a relationship with a disruptive patient ends

Your practice terminated a relationship with a disruptive patient, and everything went smoothly—or so you thought, until negative comments about the practice started showing up on social media.

Disgruntled consumers of all kinds of services, including health care, have an outlet for their frustration. Actually, they have numerous outlets, including Facebook, Yelp,, and physician ratings sites such as Healthgrades, among others. And they can reach large audiences of patients and potential patients very quickly.

It has become a significant problem in health care and other fields, according to Peter T. Berk, an attorney at McDonald Hopkins LLC with in-depth experience representing and advising clients on social media issues.

Negative posts on social media

Berk tells Medical Office Manager of one case where a father had posted negative comments about a practice that terminated his son as a patient. Fortunately, loyal patients came to the defense of the practice on their own, posting comments that countered the disgruntled father’s remarks. Meanwhile, the practice began legal action and the site took the negative post down.

But resolving what can turn into a public relations nightmare is not always so straightforward. “Each site has its own rules and regulations for what it takes down,” Berk says.

When it comes to addressing negative social media posts, the challenge isn’t specific to physicians. “It’s not a physician problem; it’s a business problem,” Berk explains.

Still, he acknowledges that in the health care field there is a difference.

“Certainly the issue facing physicians is your ability to respond is much more limited,” he says.

As an example, he cites a towing company, which can refute negative remarks by sharing facts. A medical office, on the other hand, must protect the patient’s privacy.

The situation is further complicated by the nature of the online world. In the brick and mortar world, your response is one way, Berk explains, while in the social media world, this response could result in possible backlash.

“In the social media world, your response can escalate the problem,” he says. “Your response to a social media attack has to be measured.”

Proactive approach

As obvious as it might sound, the best way to address the situation is to not let it get to the point where the patient is frustrated. With this in mind, Berk advocates employing basic customer service techniques at the time you terminate a relationship with a patient.

It’s all in how it’s done, he says, which should include allowing a patient to get their feelings out, to vent. He recommends having a conversation that satisfies the patient, one where they can express their disgruntled feelings—and where they don’t feel blamed for the end of the relationship.

“When you terminate them, be cognizant of how you’re doing it to lessen the impact to the patient,” Berk says.

This may alleviate any need for venting on social media. If it doesn’t, more diplomacy may be required.

“If there is a disgruntled post on the practice’s Facebook wall, respond with a simple opening of the door to try and resolve it,” says Berk.

He tells Medical Office Manager that at the same time it’s not a bad idea for a practice to contact a lawyer, even from the standpoint of a confidentiality issue, and to find out how to document to protect yourself in the future, including documenting what you’ve done to help the patient.

Sometimes it can be difficult to resolve these kinds of issues, because of the ease of anonymity. This was the situation with the father and son case, which required research to identify the parent and patient.

The number of outlets, too, can make it difficult to keep track of what’s being said. Facebook is clearly one of the top places, Berk says, and disgruntled patients post comments on a practice’s Facebook fan page.

One option, of course, is to simply delete those comments, but doing so is likely to escalate the situation. Again, it’s about a measured approach.

And speaking of approach, it is recommended that a practice regularly check various social media outlets and rating sites for comments from disgruntled former patients.

“Unfortunately, in the world we live in, you have to be somewhat vigilant about your online brand,” Berk says.

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