Angry patients vent online too
Came across this article:
As Angry Patients Vent Online,Doctors Sue to Silence Them
By DAVID KESMODEL THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
September 14, 2005
Doctors have long accepted that their patients share opinions about the care they have received, knowing that satisfied patients will refer others while those not so happy with their bedside manner might encourage prospective customers to seek treatment elsewhere. But when William Boothe, an ophthalmologist in Texas, saw that one disgruntled former patient was posting his complaints on the Internet, he launched an aggressive response. He sued for libel and other claims, and earlier this year a state judge ordered the material removed from the Web.
The case is one of a growing number of legal battles being waged over Internet postings about medical complaints. More patients are taking their opinions of their local doctors to the Internet, and a wider audience, and that has some medical providers on edge. Several Web sites have sprung up that encourage patients to post anonymous reviews of doctors and dentists, and some frustrated patients have created entire Web sites to criticize specific physicians.
"The potential problems are huge," said Matt Messina, a dentist in Fairview Park, Ohio, and a spokesman for the American Dental Association. "My reputation is my stock in trade … and we work years and years to build that reputation. To have that shattered potentially [by an Internet posting] is a concern."
Patient advocates, meanwhile, say patients have First Amendment rights to describe their experiences with physicians. "Blogs and personal Web sites are no different than talking over the back fence," said Charles Inlander, president of People's Medical Society, a patient advocacy group in Allentown, Pa. "Those who read it have to take it with whatever grain of salt you would take, just like a neighbor. It's too bad if doctors are insulted by this."
The 'Magic Laser Machine'
Dr. Boothe, who practices in the Dallas area, filed lawsuits in a state court in Collin County, Texas, in January against the disgruntled former patient, Dan Morikawa, and another man, Brent Hanson, who runs a Web site called LasikFraud.com.
Dr. Boothe performed Lasik surgery, a form of laser-assisted vision correction, on Mr. Morikawa in September 2004, according to court papers. But Mr. Morikawa was unhappy with the results, and demanded his money back, citing a guarantee in one of Dr. Boothe's advertisements. Soon thereafter, Mr. Morikawa created various Web sites in which he criticized Dr. Boothe. One Web page said, "All these lives ruined by Dr. William Boothe, his magic laser machine, and wild irresponsible advertising claims."
According to Dr. Boothe's suits, Mr. Hanson republished allegations by Mr. Morikawa on LasikFraud.com. Mr. Hanson, a 41-year-old software developer, says he was a victim of bad eye surgery by another doctor in the 1990s and uses LasikFraud.com to warn others about potential problems with the procedure.
Dr. Boothe and Mr. Morikawa reached a settlement, and a judge also issued a permanent injunction barring any more Internet postings. Mr. Morikawa's sites were shut down. A similar settlement was reached with Mr. Hanson, requiring him to delete certain material. Dr. Boothe was also required to remove messages about the matter he had posted in online forums.
Mr. Morikawa couldn't be reached. Mr. Hanson declined to comment on the case. Edward R. McNicholas, a lawyer for Dr. Boothe, said Dr. Boothe was unavailable.
First Amendment Fight
Other doctors have not been successful in their attempts to get negative information removed from the Internet.
In Palm Beach County, Fla., two dentists last November sued a patient who had created a Web site called DentalFraudinFlorida.com, seeking to have the site shut down. But they withdrew their complaint last month, and the site remains online.
The patient, Elaine Prentice, criticized the dentists and others whom she said were responsible for shoddy dental work. She also posted information from a complaint she filed with the Florida Department of Health; the complaint had been rejected for lack of probable cause.
The two dentists who sued -- Leonard Tolley and Richard Kaplan -- said in their suit that the Web site was created "to publicly embarrass, humiliate or otherwise" harm their reputations. They claimed Ms. Prentice had violated Florida law by posting confidential information about a complaint to the health department, and asked to have that information removed.
Paul Alan Levy, a lawyer for Ms. Prentice, said the dentists withdrew their suit because it was "frivolous." Mr. Levy, who works for Public Citizen, a Washington consumer group, had argued Ms. Prentice had a right under the First Amendment to create the site.
Douglas M. McIntosh, a lawyer for the dentists, said they withdrew the case because "we felt there was enough of a cessation of the activity [the posting of information] that we could not burden the court any further."
Ms. Prentice, however, said "no information on my Web site has been altered or removed." The 41-year-old office manager for a construction company said her Web site is designed to serve as "an example to teach others."
Meanwhile, several Web sites have emerged in the past year that feature anonymous reviews of doctors. These sites differ from official state medical-board Web sites that post background information about licensed medical practitioners, such as hospital disciplinary actions.
One of the new sites, called NDDB.net, for National Doctor Database, invites visitors to review thousands of doctors listed on its site, but so far has collected only about 600 reviews. The owner of the site is not identified and refused to give his or her name in an email exchange, saying in part that the site is wary about potential litigation.
Lawrence Hipshman, an Oregon psychiatrist who received a single, negative review on the site, said the posting was "obnoxious." The reviewer said he or she was treated "horribly" by Dr. Hipshman, rated the visit as "awful" and would "never" recommend the doctor to family or friends. A search on "Hipshman" in Google lists the site first.
"We don't know anything about who this person is, or if this person was actually a patient," said Dr. Hipshman, who is a professor at Oregon Health and Science University. He said he doesn't plan to contact the site's owner, but said he was concerned about the site's practices. "There shouldn't be any attempt to create a profile until there are maybe 100 reviews on a person," he added. (Aetna Inc., the large health insurer, requires a minimum of five reviews before posting patients' survey information in an online feature it calls DocFind.)
DR.Oogle Inc., based in San Francisco, runs a free Web site that features anonymous reviews on about 19,000 dentists. Submissions are filtered for obscenities but otherwise are not screened.
The site says it "receives complaints and legal threats from aggrieved dentists all the time." When legal threats are received, DR.Oogle says it removes that dentist's information; reviews have been removed for more than 100 dentists. One California dentist in June sued a woman in part for comments she posted about him on DR.Oogle. The case is pending in a San Diego court.
DR.Oogle recently received a subpoena for information about another user and intends to comply, said Sasha Hershfield, the company's chief executive. DR.Ooogle doesn't collect names or postal addresses but does store a user's Internet protocol address -- a unique number identifying a computer connected to the Web.
Another free site, RateMDs.com, of Sunnyvale, Calif., includes ratings on about 11,000 doctors and lets physicians and others post rebuttals. "We've gotten a couple of threats of legal action, but nothing's come of it," said John Swapceinski, co-founder of the site. The site reviews each comment before posting it and warns users that "anything libelous will be deleted."
Other patients have become embroiled in legal battles over trademarks when they have created complaint sites that use a medical group's name.
Bosley Inc., a large hair transplant provider, has sparred for years with Michael Kremer, a former patient who complained about a hair transplant performed by a Bosley physician. Mr. Kremer's malpractice suit against the company in 1994 was dismissed. But in 2000, he registered the Web site BosleyMedical.com, which features criticism about the company.
The Beverly Hills, Calif., company, formerly known as Bosley Medical Institute Inc., sued Mr. Kremer for trademark infringement, among other claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in April agreed with a lower court's ruling that Mr. Kremer's use of "Bosley Medical" didn't constitute trademark infringement because Mr. Kremer wasn't using BosleyMedical.com for a commercial purpose. "Kremer is not Bosley's competitor; he is their critic," the court ruled. But the case is still pending because the appeals court said the lower court erred on several other rulings, and it has sent the case back for review.
How long before we have a similar situation here, I wonder.