Dentists can use online forums such as Yelp to their advantage

With federal and state law supporting a patient's right to post about a dental practice on online forums, there is little dentists can do to prevent a negative review. But they can use websites like Yelp to their advantage in their marketing efforts, say some social media experts.

Sherry Mostofi, of Mostofi Law Group Inc., lectures at CDA Presents The Art and Science of Dentistry about maintaining online reputations. She says dentists can use a site like Yelp to boost their practice’s image in the community.

“I would really like to see dentists taking advantage of the positive reviews. I think Yelp, if handled strategically, could be a wonderful marketing venue for dentists and a way to bolster your reputation in the community,” Mostofi said. “Dentists can do this by providing wonderful service and care, and having an excellent staff — all of these things will lead to positive reviews.”

Mostofi said she always tells dentists that if they have a large number of positive reviews and a few negative reviews, it almost makes them “look more human.”

“It’s a pattern of negative reviews dentists should be concerned with,” Mostofi said. “Dentists have to think of the negative reviews as an opportunity for them to see how to improve the practice.”  

Fighting any negative online reviews has, in a way, become a futile exercise, Mostofi said. The courts are the main reason for this. In 2011, for example, a California dentist who sued the parents of a patient, alleging that a negative review they posted on Yelp defamed her, was ordered to pay the parents and Yelp $80,000 in attorneys' fees and litigation costs. The court ordered the dentist to pay these fees because California has an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute. Previously, in December 2010, the California’s 6th District Court of Appeals found that due to the “public concern, discussion and controversy” about the use of silver amalgam, which was mentioned in the said review, the Yelp posting was protected because it contributed to public discussion regarding amalgam use in dental treatment.

In 1996, Congress also passed the Communications Decency Act, which allows sites like Yelp and other websites that handle reviews to be protected from this type of action. In other words, the sites can allow third parties to post information and the site will not be held liable for that content.

The only grounds a physician or dentist would have in winning such a claim would be if it constitutes defamation, and according to Mostofi, grounds for meeting defamation are strict.

This is why dentists should view the increasing prevalence of online reviews as an opportunity to help bolster their practices, said Shaun Pryor, a CDA practice analyst with the Practice Support Center.

“If an office embraces Yelp as a ‘partner’ in finding new patients, they can find out very quickly that it definitely works, but it is not an automatic positive review that will always be posted to their webpage,” Pryor said. “This can become very frustrating for some offices, especially the providers who take it very personal when a bad review posts with their name attached.”

If a bad review is posted, and it is the patient’s true opinion of their experience, Pryor said the office can do a few things:

  • Try to find out who the patient is who posted the bad review and attempt to get them back into the office to show them the issue they complained about has been fixed.
  • If the office cannot identify the patient posting the review and the bad review has not violated Yelp’s review policy, the review will stand until it is filtered down.
  • The office can take in the feedback, discuss it as a team and learn from the experience going forward.

Mostofi reminds dentists that it is important for them not to respond to any reviews online due to a potential HIPAA violation.

“It could be a violation of HIPAA and state privacy laws because by responding to a patient in an online forum you are disclosing they are a patient,” Mostofi said. “Instead, try to resolve any issues privately with a patient and see what can be done to remedy the issue they have with the practice.”

If the patient cannot be identified by their screen name, Yelp has a direct messaging feature, which allows Yelp users to contact one another in a private manner. Dentists can use this feature to leave their contact information for the patient to get a hold of them. (Mostofi recommends keeping the conversation to a minimum in this private message format — stick to contact information only.)

Another technique some practices use is giving patients the opportunity to complete a survey following treatment, which allows them to express their feelings without going to a public forum such as Yelp.

In the end, it comes down to providing strong customer service, Pryor said.

“There are many ways to manage your page on Yelp, but the best way is to communicate with patients, be an active partner and learn as a team from the reviews how to be better at what you provide your patients, and how patients perceive your office and the providers,” Pryor said.

CDA Social Media Resources

Mostofi led a seminar titled Maximize Social Media — Minimize Risks as part of CDA Presents in Anaheim last year, and will do so again at CDA Presents in Anaheim on May 15-17.

CDA Endorsed Program Demandforce is a company dentists can use to help them monitor and grow their online reputation. More information on Demandforce can be found at cda.org/endorsedprograms.

An example of a social media policy can be found under the "Social Networking" section of the Sample Employee Manual.

Updated 03/06/14