Patient Reviews and HIPAA

Patient Reviews and HIPAA

1920 1280 Vince Schwellenbach

Let’s talk about patient reviews.

Nearly every practice I’ve talked with is concerned about the content on their website. But, doing a quick check of Google may reveal more about your medical or dental practice than your website conveys.

Nestled into search engine results pages (SERPs) is data about you, your practice, and your patients’ experiences. Whether these come from Google, Yelp, or Healthgrades (and there are so many more) the punchline is – patients, parents and guardians, or referring doctors are looking. What’s the key takeaway? Solid reputation management is vital to attract patients online and manage patient reviews.

Google SERPs, Patient Reviews, and HIPAA

Layout of Google’s SERP

What can you do when patient reviews come up and aren’t favorable or factually incorrect?

The short answer is quite a bit. If it’s a fake review, take with the online provider to get the information removed. But let’s say it is factual, I’ll talk you off the ledge and through corrective action, and in addition provide basic advice in regards to HIPAA when handling patient reviews.

Throughout the year, I deliver educational keynotes to healthcare professionals on a variety of topics. Nothing dominates the Q&A quite like Yelp and other forms of online reviews. For this reason, I am compelled to provide some additional learning about what to do with patient reviews, setting up your funnel to get additional reviews and staying within your lane according to HIPAA.

Know this, just because you have one or several negative reviews doesn’t mean your practice is doomed, but it provides the opportunity for some good will and be able to present both sides of the story.

Patient reviews are changing the way patients select doctors:

During presentations I often say that patients need doctors, just not “that” doctor. It’s hard to hear but it’s painfully true. Patient experiences, service, and relationships go a long way as to why one practice is successful and another isn’t. Far too often, doctors define patient experiences as what happens within their walls but that’s only a percentage of it. Storytelling (i.e., websites, fellow patient reviews, social, and community involvement) attracts, converts, and engages patients before they step foot in the door.

So let’s begin this story using the above example. The doctor Google has featured has 149 reviews and the overwhelming majority are very positive. He’s going to be fine, no issues here. If a patient is in-market and Downtown Dental comes up through search, it’s as close to a slam dunk as you can get. It’s obvious his practice has met and exceeded expectations and has done an above average with organic SEO.

But what if you only have 5, 10, or 25 patient reviews and it’s a mixed bag? That’s where you need to put in the work or hire someone to do the work for you. Reviews really write themselves most of the time. If you do the work, do it with a smile, and make your patient feel welcome from start to stop, you’ve done the groundwork. But the truth is only 7% of patients write reviews and the most likely patients to write them have an axe to grind. Most of the time it’s waiting time or handling a cancellation, but sometimes it’s further reaching and more emotional for the doctor and the patient. So how are you to respond if the patient talks down the practice?

The DO’s and DON’Ts of patient reviews:

Do reply with regularity, your patient wants to be heard. Keep it short and polite.

It’s critical to have a strategy in place from the get go regarding patient reviews. Like it or not, Yelp and others will allow the patient to create the business listing even if you don’t. So you need to get ahead of the process and start there. If you don’t respond to negative reviews (subsets of compliance rules are rare by state and specialty), that review can be hurting your practice. Did you know that 77% of patients use online review sites before selecting a doctor and 47% of patients would consider going out of network based on more positive reviews than an in-network provider? Those statistics alone require we pause before responding too critically or emotionally, and risk turning off potential patients. So what’s the right approach?

Don’t acknowledge that the person is or was a patient of the practice.

This is the big one and it sounds easier than it is. Just because the person has outed themselves as a previous or current patient of the practice doesn’t mean HIPAA doesn’t apply. The goal here is two-fold, address the root cause of the issue and provide prospective patients reading the review an alternative perspective. Stick to facts like a policy and remember it is better to err on the side of saying too little than potentially break privacy by saying too much.

Example: “The staff is so rude. I waited way beyond my appointment time and the doctor made me feel rushed!”

Normal response: “We’re sorry that we were behind. We do our best to keep appointments on time, but we didn’t meet expectations.”

HIPAA compliant response: “When scheduling patients, it is the policy of our practice to adjust the time with the doctor as necessary for that patient’s particular needs to keep our schedule on track. As a result of emergency situations, it is possible for us to be behind schedule from time to time.”

Do you see the difference?  The normal response (which I see often) acknowledges that reviewer as a patient. The review does a great job of showing empathy, but crosses the line with regard to privacy. The HIPAA compliant response states a policy that your prospective patient can understand, without acknowledging the reviewer was a patient.

Don’t respond immediately to a negative review.

None of us say the right things when we’re hopping mad. I absolutely know that I don’t. So take a few minutes, wait until the end of the day, but work on your response. Once you have it, ask a staff member or spouse for their reaction. Once you have refined your response, reach out to the patient.

Do move the conversation offline to the phone or in-office consult.

20 years ago the internet didn’t exist. We had to pick up the phone and talk to one another. That still applies in regard to responding to patient reviews. The patient obviously wanted to be heard and by addressing their concerns privately you have the ability to deescalate the situation and potentially get them to remove or edit their review. Sit back and allow the patient to vent, then ask what can be done to rectify the experience.

Also, it’s really important to thank the reviewer and acknowledge their concerns. Often times it’s within this criticism that we can better understand a patient point of view and determine if procedural change is needed to ensure this instance doesn’t become repetitive.

Do build a review funnel to bury the negative with positive, more recent patient reviews.

Simply ask your patients to review your practice. Hand select them if you want to, but use a trackable resource like MailChimp to execute your review campaigns. By using a solution like MailChimp, you’ll be able to see who your email campaign is reaching, how they are interacting, and what to change regarding your approach in soliciting reviews.

*Quick final note. Social media networks have many of the same above rules. “Liking” or saying “thanks” to a review is the same as acknowledging the person as a patient. Stick to the same responses socially as you would with Google or Yelp.

Best of luck to you and until next time!


Vince Schwellenbach

Vince Schwellenbach is the managing partner and chief creative at Macbach. Macbach has served the healthcare community since 2007 and has been a nationally recognized provider of web, SEO, and social engagement for dental and medical practices.

All stories by : Vince Schwellenbach
1 Comment

Leave a Reply