Stung By Yelp Reviews, Health Providers Spill Patient Secrets


 
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By Charles Ornstein

Burned by negative reviews, some health providers are casting their patients’ privacy aside and sharing intimate details online as they try to rebut criticism.

In the course of these arguments — which have spilled out publicly on ratings sites like Yelp — doctors, dentists, chiropractors and massage therapists, among others, have divulged details of patients’ diagnoses, treatments and idiosyncrasies.

One Washington state dentist turned the tables on a patient who blamed him for the loss of a molar: “Due to your clenching and grinding habit, this is not the first molar tooth you have lost due to a fractured root,” he wrote. “This tooth is no different.”

Burned by negative reviews, some health providers are casting their patients’ privacy aside and sharing intimate details online as they try to rebut criticism.

In the course of these arguments — which have spilled out publicly on ratings sites like Yelp — doctors, dentists, chiropractors and massage therapists, among others, have divulged details of patients’ diagnoses, treatments and idiosyncrasies.

One Washington state dentist turned the tables on a patient who blamed him for the loss of a molar: “Due to your clenching and grinding habit, this is not the first molar tooth you have lost due to a fractured root,” he wrote. “This tooth is no different.”

sing a tool developed by the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, we identified more than 3,500 one-star reviews (the lowest) in which patients mention privacy or HIPAA. In dozens of instances, responses to complaints about medical care turned into disputes over patient privacy.

The patients affected say they’ve been doubly injured — first by poor service or care and then by the disclosure of information they considered private.

The shock of exposure can be effective, prompting patients to back off.

“I posted a negative review” on Yelp, a client of a California dentist wrote in 2013. “After that, she posted a response with details that included my personal dental information. … I removed my review to protect my medical privacy.”

The consumer complained to the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces HIPAA. The office warned the dentist about posting personal information in response to Yelp reviews. It is currently investigating a New York dentist for divulging personal information about a patient who complained about her care.

The office couldn’t say how many complaints it has received in this area because it doesn’t track complaints this way. We have previously reported about the agency’s historic inability to analyze its complaints and identify repeat HIPAA violators.

Deven McGraw, the office’s deputy director of health information privacy, said health professionals responding to online reviews can speak generally about the way they treat patients but must have permission to discuss individual cases. Just because patients have rated their health provider publicly doesn’t give their health provider permission to rate them in return.

“If the complaint is about poor patient care, they can come back and say, ‘I provide all of my patients with good patient care’ and ‘I’ve been reviewed in other contexts and have good reviews,’ ” McGraw said. But they can’t “take those accusations on individually by the patient.”

McGraw pointed to a 2013 case out of California in which a hospital was fined $275,000 for disclosing information about a patient to the media without permission, allegedly in retaliation for the patient complaining to the media about the hospital.

Yelp’s senior director of litigation, Aaron Schur, said most reviews of doctors and dentists aren’t about the actual health care delivered but rather their office wait, the front office staff, billing procedures or bedside manner. Many health providers are careful and appropriate in responding to online reviews, encouraging patients to contact them offline or apologizing for any perceived slights. Some don’t respond at all.

“There’s certainly ways to respond to reviews that don’t implicate HIPAA,” Schur said.

In 2012, University of Utah Health Care in Salt Lake City was the first hospital system in the country to post patient reviews and comments online. The system, which had to overcome doctors’ resistance to being rated, found positive comments far outnumbered negative ones.

“If you whitewash comments, if you only put those that are highly positive, the public is very savvy and will consider that to be only advertising,” said Thomas Miller, chief medical officer for the University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics.

Unlike Yelp, the University of Utah does not allow comments about a doctor’s medical competency and it does not allow physicians to respond to comments.

In discussing their battles over online reviews, patients said they’d turned to ratings sites for closure and in the hope that their experiences would help others seeking care. Their providers’ responses, however, left them with a lingering sense of lost trust.

Angela Grijalva brought her then 12-year-old daughter to Maximize Chiropractic in Sacramento, Calif., a couple years ago for an exam. In a one-star review on Yelp, Grijalva alleged that chiropractor Tim Nicholl led her daughter to “believe she had scoliosis and urgently needed x-rays, which could be performed at her next appointment. … My daughter cried all night and had a tough time concentrating at school.”

But it turned out her daughter did not have scoliosis, Grijalva wrote. She encouraged parents to stay away from the office.

Nicholl replied on Yelp, acknowledging that Grijalva’s daughter was a patient (a disclosure that is not allowed under HIPAA) and discussing the procedures he performed on her and her condition, though he said he could not disclose specifics of the diagnosis “due to privacy and patient confidentiality.”

“The next day you brought your daughter back in for a verbal review of the x-rays and I informed you that the x-rays had identified some issues, but the good news was that your daughter did not have scoliosis, great news!” he recounted. “I proceeded to adjust your daughter and the adjustment went very well, as did the entire appointment; you made no mention of a ‘misdiagnosis’ or any other concern.”

In an interview, Grijalva said Nicholl’s response “violated my daughter and her privacy.”

 
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