Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Patient Who Didn't Like the Doc. On-Line.

KevinMD has a post up today by Tobin Arthur called

Online reputation can have career implications for physicians

Arthur also refers to a post on the AMA's website back in October by Amy Lynn Sorrel,

Negative online reviews leave doctors with little recourse

Good timing because I wanted to post a vignette about a friend who is distraught about the on-line reviews he's gotten from patients. To protect both the innocent and the guilty, I'm confabulating the details & demographics, but the gist of the story is real and I'd like to hear your comments.

Dr. Tom Shrinky (not his real name) is a friend of mine who practices in Sanetown, PA (not a real place). He's an excellent psychiatrist with a great reputation, a packed practice with a long wait for new patient entry, and he's as conscientious as they come: he carries his cell phone everywhere and he returns all calls within the day. Plus, he's a nice guy, though I may be biased because we're friends.

One day, a patient says to Dr. Shrinky, "Doc, you know, I Googled you, and it wasn't pretty." Alarmed, Tom goes to Google himself and discovers that he's got a patient review up on one of these rate-your-doc sites. The comments are strangely personal, they comment on his recent weight loss, and say that he's in bed with the drug companies. There are a couple of other reviews, all 5 star, all saying how he's the best shrink in the world, but his overall rating is 3 star, and you'd wonder if he wasn't dying from the comment.

Okay, you hate a restaurant, you zing it on Yelp and you don't go back.

But Tom believes he knows who put these comments up. He has a patient, a lawyer he sees for weekly psychotherapy sessions. The patient is often hostile towards him, often treats him in a demeaning fashion, and this relationship does not feel good. The patient left treatment once briefly, years ago, but returned because, "You shrinks are all nuts and you're better than Dr. Cashew." Why Tom took him back, I'll never know. Tom tries to get the patient to focus on his hostility as part of the treatment.

So, a drug rep did stop by the office once to drop off samples while the patient was in the waiting room, and the patient had made a comment about this. And Tom had lost a lot of weight recently-- he'd taken up running and before he knew it, he was doing half-marathons. He cut back on carbs, beer and soda, and 60 pounds had dropped off him over 14 months. He looked great, and everyone commented including his patients. This particular patient, however, had said nothing, and one day walked in, looked Tom up and down, and said, "Have you got cancer or AIDS?" So the comment on the review about how he'd lost a lot of weight recently and looked like he had cancer. Tom could think of no one else who was unhappy with him or who would do this.

Unlike the restaurant patron, Tom's patient continues to show up weekly for psychotherapy. Tom feels a bit intimidated by him (this is not new) and is always happy when he cancels. So far, Tom hasn't asked if he wrote the review, but it bothers him. Others have put up counter-reviews, but there is a second bad review, and Tom thinks this is also the same patient. A colleague mentioned that a patient he tried to refer would not see him because of the reviews.

So, my thoughts, and then please do add yours:

--It seems to me that sometimes people have negative feelings in the course of a psychotherapy (ah, we might call this transference, but it would be dismissive to attribute all negative feedback to negative transference). In this case, it's no longer a doctor-patient issue, but one that has potentially included the entire world via the Internet.

--Should Tom ask his patient if he's put up the reviews? What does that get him? The patient may become embarrassed or defensive, or he may say he didn't do it (and maybe he didn't?) and be angry at the accusation.

--How does a psychiatrist (or any doctor) continue to treat someone who publicly struck at their reputation?

--And here's another problem for the doc--- a patient who would do this might also go to the physician licensing board and complain, and so Tom may worry that to terminate this patient's care may incite the patient's anger and result in a complaint and investigation of his practice. The patient is a credible professional and a complaint from him would likely be taken quite seriously. While Tom is certain he's provided responsible care and has not violated any standards of practice, he's well aware that a Board investigation (if a complaint did progress to that) takes years and causes a great deal of expense and agony, and so he may well be worried about fanning any flames.

--And finally, Tom is worried about upsetting the patient. He's been taking care of this patient for years, and he doesn't want this to end badly.

So what should Dr. Tom Shrinky do?