How to Respond to Online Patient Reviews to Avoid HIPAA Violations

Ali Oromchian, JD, LLM
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When growing your dental practice, you probably have considered or dealt with online reviews as part of your social media or communications platforms. But even with the wonderful opportunities that online reviews can provide, certain cautions should be noted to prevent Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations.

There often are misconceptions about what HIPAA violations can be. For instance, most people know that HIPAA prevents a dentist or a dental practice from supplying any personal information about a patient to any third party. 

What people may not realize is that HIPAA even prevents a dentist or a dental practice from divulging that a person is a patient of the practice. In addition, should patients choose to disclose information to the public of their own accord, that is still not a sufficient waiver of their rights that would allow a dentist or dental practice to disclose that same or any other information.

While it is important that you not state certain things to avoid HIPAA violations, there are, however, a number of ways in which you can and should properly respond to online reviews.

What You Should Do

First, you should develop a set of relatively generic responses for various online review situations. For instance, statements referring to the policies and procedures of the office can help protect and insulate your dental practice from liability. 

In response to a complaint about your paperwork process taking too long, your practice could state that “It is our policy that paperwork must be filled out prior to evaluation by our team.” This statement is short, sweet, and to the point, while also providing valid and accurate information to other people who may be reading the review.

Timely response to online reviews is the key to resolving issues before they have been posted for too long. One good rule of thumb is to respond to a posting within two to three days, if it is feasible. This, itself, can be addressed through periodic monitoring of review sites. If you do not have the opportunity to respond on a timely basis, a generic response thanking posters for their review may be sufficient.

Further, you always have the alternative opportunity to respond directly to a complaint by privately responding to patients and by contacting them offline to resolve their issue. However, should the reviewer be listed as anonymous, do not attempt to make any assumptions about who the patient might be because you may presume wrong.

In some instances, you may be able to take control of unclaimed sites that show reviews about your dental practice. On Yelp, in particular, you may be able to claim a page as your own profile page if it has not been claimed yet. Alternatively, you could create an additional page on that platform. Should you have any negative reviews posted on your own site, you may also be able to contact your website host to seek to have those reviews removed.

However, when web pages are “too perfect” and do not appear to have any negative reviews, suspicions may arise that negative posts might be censored. To overcome this potential perception, you should leave negative reviews up, but respond appropriately and try to increase the number of positive reviews that are posted as well.

The Learning Curve

Overall, learning how to respond to online reviews is a process that your dental practice will need to become familiar with. Understanding how to utilize positive reviews to your practice’s advantage and mitigate negative ones can help your practice grow in the right ways.

What should be remembered, though, are the basic rules regarding compliance with HIPAA. Do not ever acknowledge in an online review that the poster is your practice’s patient, and do not ever identify any information about any of your patients.

Should you ever make any missteps in regard to these rules, contacting a dental practice attorney would be a wise choice. By knowing how to deal with problems related to online reviews in advance, you can be best prepared for any potential issues that might come your way in the future. 

Mr. Oromchian, JD, LLM, is one of the nation’s leading dental lawyers on topics relevant to dentists. He is the founder of Dental and Medical Counsel PC, which is regarded as one of the preeminent dental law firms devoted to dental entrepreneurs. He is also recognized as an exceptional speaker and educator. Additionally, he is the author of The Strategic Dentist, which serves as a guide to dentists looking to purchase or start their own practice. He can be reached at ao@dmcounsel.com.

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