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0800 716 646
25 April 2017
Unhappy patients are increasingly ready to use social media and online ratings sites to post comments and complaints. Some of this feedback can feel unjustified and misleading and occasionally it can be abusive, defamatory or offensive.
Unfavourable mentions of the doctor will still be included in online search results, even if they occurred many years before.
If you believe your reputation has been damaged online, your options include:
All of these approaches carry risks, and doctors should seek specific advice from the MDU.
When misleading stories appear, it is often impossible to give your side of the story without revealing personal information about the patient. The GMC accepts that it can be frustrating for doctors to see inaccurate or misleading information about their diagnosis, treatment or behaviour but says this 'does not relieve you of your duty to respect your patient's confidentiality'.
Elsewhere, the GMC says: 'You must not use publicly accessible social media to discuss individual patients or their care with those patients or anyone else.'
Some practices reply to negative feedback on the NHS Choices site, thanking patients for their comments, apologising if they are not happy with their treatment and inviting them to get directly in touch to discuss any concerns. This approach is in line with the NHS complaints procedure, which emphasises the need to be open and honest with complainants and to learn lessons from complaints.
Rebutting critical comments directly or attempting to have a post removed may inflame the situation and could prompt the person to re-post their comments on another site. The GMC says: 'Disputes between patients and doctors conducted in the media often serve no practical purpose; they can prolong or intensify conflict and may undermine public confidence in the profession.'
If you post a response, this could make the page more prominent in search engine results. Equally, taking legal action against a defamatory poster could generate further unwelcome publicity.
Most websites and forums have terms and conditions that prohibit abusive or offensive material and allow users to report posts.
For example, patient feedback on NHS Choices should comply with its Comments Policy. Posts can be reported to the site moderators using the link provided alongside each comment. NHS Choices does not promise to remove such comments, although it promises to investigate as soon as possible. Facebook says it may take action where material violates its Community Standards such as direct threats and hate speech but warns that 'not all disagreeable or disturbing content' will meet its criteria.
It may be possible to seek a correction, clarification and/or apology from a media outlet if a member feels their clinical practice has been misrepresented online. As above, it is necessary to consider patient confidentiality and the risk of the offending content being made more prominent. The MDU press office can advise further.
Defamation arises when a false statement is made which lowers someone's reputation in the view of right thinking people and its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to their reputation.
However, The Defamation Act 2013 provides a number of defences, including:
Defamation actions can be lengthy, expensive and it is difficult to predict the outcome with any certainty. In addition, the publicity generated often means the defamatory comment reaches a wider audience than the original statement. It is therefore not generally in the interests of MDU members to use our mutual fund to pursue defamation actions.
In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that search engine operators are data controllers and that individuals therefore had the right to ask them to remove search results on privacy grounds if these 'appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive'.
The ruling said 'a fair balance should be sought' between the right to privacy and the public interest, which may depend on:
The major search engines Google, Bing and Yahoo have created web forms to request the removal of search results. Google says: 'In evaluating your request, we will look at whether the results include outdated information about your private life. We'll also look at whether there's a public interest in the information remaining in our search results – for example, if it relates to financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions or your public conduct as a government official (elected or unelected).
When considering whether to make a request, you should also remember:
This guidance was correct at publication on 25/04/2017. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.
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