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Minn. Supreme Court rules online posts didn’t defame doctor

Last week the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on a defamation case from 2010 filed by Dr. David McKee, a neurologist in Duluth MN.  McKee claimed online patient reviews posted by Dennis Laurion, who’s father was a patient of McKee.  Laurion’s online comments included:

“[McKee said]  44 percent of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option,” and that “It doesn’t matter that the patient’s gown did not cover his backside.”

“When I mentioned Dr. McKee’s name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, ‘Dr. McKee is a real tool!'”

Laurion’s father, Kenneth, was hospitalized for a hemorrhagic stroke at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth.  Laurion’s father was discharged and Laurion proceeded to post the online reviews.

Justice Alan Page noted that since McKee acknowledged the gist of some of the statements were true even though they were misinterpreted.  Page wrote:

“Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false,”

McKee originally sued and had the charges dismissed by a St. Louis County judge because Laurion’s statements were protected opinion, substantially true or too vague to convey defamation.  An appeals court later reversed that ruling based on harm done to McKee’s reputation and at least 6 of the statements could be proven false.  And the Supreme Court disagreed.  Page added that the “tool” statements didn’t pass the test of defamation either.  McKee’s attorney claimed the statement was fabricated.  Page stated whether it was fabricated or not was irrelevant.

McKee has spent more than $60,000 in legal fees and to clear his name online.  After the initial lawsuit the story went viral and hundreds of negative reviews appeared on review sites under McKee’s name.  A look at the review sites for McKee as of the ruling shows

Patient Reviews

Negative reviews from seemingly non-patients and stemming only from the lawsuit such as the one below are still visible on review sites.

Negative Review

What can doctors do to protect themselves?

1. The first step any provider should take is to encourage reviews by patients.  The majority of patients should have a pleasing experience with you and these positive reviews can drown out any negative reviews.  Patients actually expect to see a few negative reviews mixed in with many positive reviews as this appears more real than having 100% positive reviews which could appear fabricated.

2.  Respond to reviews in a general non patient specific manner.  Doctors can respond to reviews without acknowledging that a reviewer was actually a patient.  As seen in the image above, many of the rating factors on review sites have nothing to do with protected health information but instead are centered around ease of appointment scheduling, wait times, professionalism, etc and these concerns can be responded to in a very general manner without breaking HIPAA guidelines.

3.  Monitor your own reviews so you know what is being said about you online and establish a system for responding.  Doctors can monitor their reputation online using Google Alerts or by using tools built specifically for monitoring online patient reviews  such as ours.

The fact is that online review sites are here to stay.  And patients will continue to search for doctors online.  The precedent set by the Minnesota High Court, while unfavorable for doctors, will likely be a continuing trend as patients demand to voice their experiences whether fabricated or not.

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About Marc
Marc Ohmann is president of Digital Solutions, Inc in Minneapolis. Digital Solutions is the company behind the MDWebPro blog and tool set. Marc was a computer science and engineering student at the University of Minnesota in 1999 when he started Digital Solutions. Marc, now a husband and father of 3, greatly enjoys the clients and creativity he is involved in each day through Digital Solutions. Follow Marc on Twitter @marcohmann and @MDWebPro and also on Google Plus

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