Highlight a leader before August 5 for the 2024 Healthcare Leadership Awards

Nominate Now

Contact Us

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Facing the music: What to do when online comments get tough

September 24, 2018

“This emergency room is so slow, my broken bone set itself while I waited!”

“This surgeon is so terrible, he couldn’t win the board game Operation!”

“The front desk here is so rude, they laugh at sick puppies and one-eyed kittens!”  

Reading comments like these on your hospital’s Facebook page feels bad enough, but knowing that it’s your job to respond seems like a downright nightmare. You know better than to “feed the trolls,” but you also know that all patients deserve to be heard and that rooting out problems really helps to improve performance and make for a positive patient experience. What do you do?

Unfortunately, since no two comments are alike, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to responding to online hostility. However, Medical Mutual, a medical professional liability insurance organization, offers a few tips for handling these social situations without getting into legal jeopardy — or a Twitter war.

First and foremost, remember that you’re always bound to HIPPA privacy laws, even when responding to a patient’s comments online. In some cases, even acknowledging that your facility treated the patient violates privacy law, so be very careful about the rhetoric of your response.

Next, when considering how to handle remarks you generally have three options: ignore, remove, or engage. Typically, it’s best to avoid fully engaging with users online. Further, if the comments imply a brewing malpractice suit, include potentially libelous content, or are threatening, you must contact your hospital’s legal department before taking any action. In the case of threats, contact local law enforcement as well. Additionally, create hard evidence by printing off these comments as soon as they appear, as digital evidence may be more difficult to use in court.

If you’re not going to engage, you may also be tempted to simply remove the inflammatory remark. However, unless the comment is threatening or explicit, experts recommend that you keep it in place, as you don’t want to appear to be covering up bad experiences at your facility. Patients would much rather see transparency than a seemingly perfect hospital which has been hiding its problems.

Of course, sometimes, you’re better off to ignore benign complaints. Vague or childish comments are often best left discounted, as other social media users aren’t likely to take these comments seriously. However, if you feel that the complaint is legitimate and warrants a response, do your best to direct the user to contact the appropriate department. Do not ask them to elaborate further in the comment thread, as this can often lead to HIPPA violations. Many businesses, including hospitals, have a standard response they use in these instances, which is a great way to demonstrate that you’re both willing to listen and professional enough to take it offline. A statement such as “we’re sorry to hear of your frustration and our administrative team would love to hear from you and address your concerns at 888-999-1111” looks helpful and engaging to both the commenter and the other readers.

Of course, the best way to handle negative press is to avoid it all together! Patients who feel heard and respected while in the hospital are much less likely to take their cause to the streets. By demonstrating your culture of excellence to patients, your hospital can do its best to avoid online negativity. While you’ll never be able to satisfy all of the patients all of the time, managing a hospital system that inspires good faith and trust in the organization is ultimately much more rewarding than responding to angry comments. To learn more about how to measure and obtain an excellent hospital, contact PRC’s expert patient satisfaction team!