Maintaining compliance with HIPAA, TCPA, the FTC, and the host of other regulatory boards is complicated. An inadvertent error can result in massive fines, but there is much to be gained from a smart online strategy if you avoid the minefield of potential violations. For the next five weeks, we’re breaking down five marketing landmines that risk HIPAA and regulatory compliance. Each article will cover one of the five landmines, and each article will conclude with an opportunity for readers to download a white paper that explains all five landmines in greater detail. Our goal is to help you ask the right questions about your practice; and ask your vendors the right questions. If they get HIPAA wrong, you will be the person who burns. Let’s get started.

Landmine #1 – Beware of responding to online reviews; consider if HIPAA applies.

It is never productive to engage in a detailed, prolonged back and forth online debate with a negative reviewer. There are two main categories of negative reviews:

You know the patient – Best practice is to reach out to the patient directly, not online. Most patients are receptive to your call if their problem can be solved. It is an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. If their initial review created mischief on the Internet, and remains unchanged even after you resolve the issue, send a private note: “I hope I addressed your concern. Would you be kind enough to remove or update your Yelp review?” These are the magic words: “Please treat this as a request; and not a demand.” The patient should always have choice. Most patients do react positively to this type of request.

You don’t know the patient – Reach out to public at large when responding online, and speak in general (not specific) terms to correct the record, explain your practice philosophy, and how you typically handle such situations.

Real life example: Patient complains online about a “botched plastic surgery outcome.” She writes the surgeon is “demanding another $10k to fix the problem he created.” Without getting into the details of this specific case, the surgeon can promote his practice by explaining that he typically waives his professional fee for any surgical revisions because he wants as many patients as possible to be satisfied with their outcomes. It’s a way to debate without debating. Nobody is accusing the patient of lying. Simply describe what’s true about your practice. This negative review created an opportunity to promote a positive feature of the practice.

Some debate whether responding to positive reviews makes sense. My vote is no. Why? First, many reviews will be positive. So, you are thanking someone for the thanks. Coming up with original material to appear authentic and avoid sounding canned will be exhausting. For anyone other than a Hollywood writer, you’ll quickly run out of material. Stick to religiously addressing the occasional negative review.

Many doctors believe if patients identify them as their doctor in an online review, they have the right to respond in detail. In fact, responding to the patient, even an expression of gratitude, could acknowledge the doctor-patient relationship without the patient’s written authorization; a HIPAA violation. In most other industries when your reputation is threatened in an online review, you can address it immediately and publicly. For healthcare providers, however, HIPAA has your hands tied.

Real Life example: A patient posts a glowing online review and you respond.

Patient review: I cannot thank Dr. Jones enough for helping me when I was in the intensive care unit. (Includes picture of Mary Smith’s face and byline is ‘Mary S.’)

Dr. Jones’ response: Mary, it’s a pleasure taking care of patients like you. Glad you are feeling better.

While ‘Mary S.’ is not an identifier, her picture is. You have breached her private health information and HIPAA penalties are potentially forthcoming.

What is considered PHI? Download the full white paper below and look to Appendix A for an exhaustive list. 

So, in conclusion, what’s the key to diffusing this landmine? Don’t debate a negative reviewer online and don’t respond to positive patient reviews.

What do you think?

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