Maintaining a strong reputation is immensely important for dental practitioners. In today’s digital landscape, online reviews, particularly those on platforms like Google, play a pivotal role in demonstrating the integrity of a dental practice. While positive reviews increase trust and revenue, negative reviews can completely destroy a dental practice.
While an occasional negative review has become an expected cost of doing business, dentists and dental practices are increasingly targeted by fake negative reviews. This disturbing trend poses significant operational challenges, as dentists rely on their online reputations to showcase the trust patients have in their services.
What is a Fake Review?
A fake review is a statement made about a business which fabricates or misrepresents a person’s marketplace experience with that business. A fake review can be left by a patient or by an anonymous person.
Sometimes, spotting a fake review can be extremely obvious. But other times, a fake review is harder to identify. Dental practitioners should conduct regular audits of their online reputation and watch for suspicious circumstances.
Some common indicators of a fake review can include the following:
- The reviewer uses a pseudonym
- The reviewer created his or her account to review your practice and has no other reviews or account activity
- The timing of the review does not align with any documented client complaint or record
- The substance of the review is false or overdramatized
- Your practice is suddenly receiving multiple negative reviews in a short timeframe
If you suspect that a review is fake, you have options. However, options often become more limited the longer you wait to take action due to timing considerations such as the relevant statutes of limitation and data loss. Additionally, some platforms, like Glassdoor, only allow users to edit or remove a review within a limited time window.
Why do People Publish Fake Reviews?
Sometimes, fake reviews are left by an actual client who had a negative experience with your dental practice and wants to deter others from using your services. While the first amendment protects clients who endeavor to publish reviews about negative experiences, overexaggerating, embellishing, or fabricating details often takes a review out of the territory of protected free speech and into the realm of defamation.
Unfortunately, fake reviews can also be published anonymously by competitors or people who have a grudge against a specific practitioner or employee. When a person who has not had an actual marketplace interaction with your dental practice leaves a negative review, this likely gives rise to multiple legal claims, including but not limited to, defamation and other privacy torts. Unfortunately, identifying the source of an anonymous review is much more difficult and often requires a dental practice to file an unmasking lawsuit against the anonymous user profiles. You can learn more about unmasking an anonymous internet user through a John Doe lawsuit here. If you suspect that a competitor is leaving fake reviews about your dental practice, an internet attorney can help you analyze your options.
What Should I Do if My Dental Practice Received a Fake Review?
If your dental practice receives a fake dental review, you have options. But your options will be limited depending on how you react before, during, and after a reputational attack. Here are 5 things you can do to guide your dental practice through a reputational attack:
1. Create a companywide policy to manage your online reputation before you receive a negative review
A dental practice should prepare in advance of a reputational attack by creating a companywide policy for monitoring and managing its online presence. This policy should include conducting regular reputational audits of a company’s search results and having an established plan in place for if the search yields concerning results. Because search engine algorithms are constantly changing, these searches should be conducted regularly.
When auditing a dental practice’s online reputation, the searcher should consider the following types of searches:
- Full company name
- Company name (Full and D/B/A) and the word “reviews”
- Company name and the word “complaints”
- Dentists’ names and the word “reviews”
- Dentists’ names and the word “complaints”
A dental practice can also use an automated monitoring service, like Google alerts, to conduct monthly, weekly, or even daily searches of their online presence.
In addition to conducting regular searches, a dental practice should claim profiles on directory and review sites. Beyond acting as an essential promotional tool for a dental practice, companies who claim business profiles often have access to internal support teams on that platform. Quick access to these support teams may become necessary if your business is in the midst of a reputational attack. For example, a business may have the option to “turn off” a review feature temporarily to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
2. Immediately document fake reviews by taking screenshots and capturing the URLs
Preserving evidence in the midst of a reputational attack is extremely important. Fake reviews can often be edited or deleted by the poster. When a review is edited or deleted, it becomes extremely difficult to show the substance of the former review. Additionally, when a review is deleted, you will lose access to valuable information that could be used to trace the identity of an anonymous reviewer.
A dentist or dental practice being targeted by fake reviews should immediately document a negative review by taking screenshots, memorializing the date of publication and discovery of the publication, and capturing pertinent URLs, including URLs to both the review and the profile posting the review. This information is essential for dentists and practices to provide to an attorney if the matter escalates to litigation.
3. Report the review for violations of a platform’s Terms of Service agreement.
Every review website has a set of Terms of Service (TOS) that users are required to adhere to while using the platform. Although most platforms do not actively monitor whether a statement is defamatory, it’s possible that the substance of a fake review may breach the review platform’s TOS. When a review platform becomes aware of a review that violates a TOS violation, they will remove the reviews.
Dentists should consider flagging and reporting questionable reviews for violations of a platform’s TOS. This approach may result in the removal of a negative review without legal action.
Keep in mind that removal of a fake review will often remove the underlying data associated with that review. So, by getting a review removed through flagging, you may limit your ability to identify your attacker.
4. Consider HIPAA Obligations
A dentist cannot disclose patient details on the internet even if releasing those details is necessary to defend their practice against a defamatory reputational attack. Thus, dentists should exercise extreme caution before responding to any online review and should consider hiring an attorney in lieu of a public response. Responding to reviews can lead to violations of HIPAA regulations, which are designed to safeguard patient privacy. Even publicly acknowledging that someone was a patient can result in disciplinary actions. Dental practitioners should know that responding to a negative review comes with huge risks.
If a dental practice decides that a review warrants a response due to its severity, it is crucial to keep certain considerations in mind. Confirming that the reviewer was a patient, disclosing a patient’s name, or discussing specific patient experiences, procedures, or medical conditions will likely violate HIPAA.
5. If needed, consult an attorney for legal action.
Generally, a fake review will remain published unless 1) It violates a TOS, 2) the publisher of the review removes the review or updates it, 3) or the dental practice or dentists secures a court order demanding removal of the fake review. A dentist or dental practice can only get a court order by filing a lawsuit.
If you reached out to the poster and requested that they remove the review, and also flagged it for a TOS violation, but the review platform declined to remove it, your only option is litigation. If you are interested in removing a review with a court order, an internet attorney can help you analyze your options. An attorney can also help you weigh your HIPAA obligations, assess your legal claims, and identify your attacker to stop the attack.
Combating fake reviews requires determination and diligence. By putting coordinated business strategies in place and taking calculated steps, a dentist can effectively and ethically manage their practice through a reputational attack.