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Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and the unprecedented growth of wireless internet access over the last decade, most of us now have instant access to our social media accounts and a treasure trove of information on virtually any topic.

This wealth of information, of course, includes online reviews of virtually every service provider you can imagine from hotels and restaurants to contractors and cab companies. Indeed, the explosion of online reviews has now carried over to the medical profession, such that with just a few keystrokes or swipes of the finger, a person can access patient reviews of everyone from doctors to dentists.

Indeed, patients now have the ability to rate medical professionals on various websites, including RateMDs, Vitals and, of course, Yelp. While some are welcoming this relatively new phenomenon and the transparency it creates with open arms, others are saying it presents something of a dangerous temptation for medical professionals.

What exactly is it about these online patient reviews that create such a dangerous temptation for medical professionals?

According to experts, there are many horror stories of medical professionals who have been hit with poor patient reviews feeling the need to respond online and, in doing so, inadvertently running afoul of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal patient privacy law.

How exactly do they end up violating HIPAA?       

The problem appears to be that medical professionals are disclosing confidential patient information without permission when responding to poor online reviews.

For example, a dentist responding to a patient review blaming them for the loss of a tooth may attribute the tooth loss to a longstanding grinding habit as opposed to poor care, or a doctor responding to a patient review claiming a misdiagnosis might cite the battery of tests she ran in defense of her actions.

In either scenario, these medical professionals are disclosing confidential information (medical history, medical treatment, respectively) and, in turn, violating HIPAA.

Is there a way for medical professionals to safely respond to poor online reviews?

Experts indicate that while medical professionals can simply ignore the poor reviews, which are often outnumbered by the good ones, they can also choose to respond in a way that is both constructive and legal.

Specifically, experts urge them to speak in general terms about the quality of care provided to patients and to point to the positive reviews. They also indicate that it's permissible for medical professionals to apologize for any apparent affronts and/or encourage people to contact the business office offline to discuss the matter further.

It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out in the years ahead, as medical professionals become increasingly tech savvy.

Consider speaking with a skilled legal professional to learn more if you or your organization has questions or concerns about legal exposure, health care compliance or other regulatory issues.

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