What to do when someone badmouths a physician or practice

A column about keeping your practice in good health

By — Posted Oct. 15, 2012.

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A physician’s good name can make or break a medical practice — which is why it can seem like a crisis when someone is threatening it.

Most surveys find that patients choose their doctors based on referrals from friends or other physicians. Someone who says bad things about a doctor or a practice could inflict a lot of damage. But any response needs to take into account who the person is, what he or she is saying and where it is being said.

The first step is to identify who is saying what about a physician or practice. This may be accomplished by asking around or searching online.

“Chances are your front office or assistants have heard something,” said Nicole Francois, a communications consultant with Market Well in Seattle who works with medical practices. “Additionally, if you are suspicious about gossip and are active in the community, ask some folks who you trust to be honest with you about any gossip regarding you and your practice.”

The next step is to decide whether action is needed. If the comments are uncommon or lack credibility, it may be best to ignore them. A response could add fuel to the fire, and letting the person alone may allow the negative comments to fade away.

If action needs to be taken, such as another physician regularly putting down your skills or spreading rumors about your personal life to other physicians or patients, the next step is direct contact.

“Even if the other medical professional backs out of the meeting, it is unlikely he or she will consider spreading bad information now that you have called him or her out,” Francois said. “If you do meet, come prepared. Be polite and dignified. Say that you are concerned about this and that you want to address it as two professionals. The other professional will either sing like a canary, and you will discover the source of the animosity and be able to resolve a past issue. Or he or she will deny it. Either way, the behavior is likely to end.”

If this person is a patient, the situation most likely will require a different tack. If the practice can figure out who the dissatisfied patient is, getting in touch with that person to determine whether the problem can be addressed may end the negative comments.

Contact the patient and ask why was the experience was bad, said James T. Dabbagian, a social media and marketing consultant based in Los Angeles. “Maybe a treatment didn’t work. Maybe the staff was rude. It could be a number of things. Promise that you will handle the situation and do it. Thank the person for bringing it to your attention.”

Experts say that if these strategies don’t work, and the badmouthing appears to have a very real effect, the next step may be to hire a lawyer to write a cease-and-desist letter. This may persuade the party who is badmouthing a medical practice to stop.

“It’s a serious step, but it can be worth it,” Francois said.

Experts say that after everything possible has been done, it may be time to consider filing a lawsuit — but that should be reserved for when the badmouthing is slanderous and having severe effects. Winning these cases usually requires proving that the negative comments are untrue and have damaged the practice financially.

“I would pick your battles carefully,” said Angela O’Mara, president of The Professional Image, a medical public relations firm in Irvine, Calif. “How much can you take?”

Physicians have won these types of lawsuits, but they can be very stressful, time-consuming and expensive. Consultants say legal action should be taken only in extreme situations after all other methods are tried to minimize the damage and persuade the person to stop spreading falsehoods.

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