April 25, 2022

Responding to Internet Criticism and HIPAA Considerations

Question: I was alerted to a patient complaint about me that was posted online. This posting contained false and misleading information regarding my diagnosis and treatment and contained insulting statements about me and my staff. It described me as uncaring, and my staff as rude and unprofessional, saying that we do not care about the comfort of our patients. Based on the details given in the posting and its timing, I can tell exactly who this patient is. The fact of the matter is that the services she wanted were cosmetic and I insisted that she pay her prior balance before I would undertake any future dental work (she has no dental insurance). In the past she needed an extraction and other critical services that I provided as a result of her very poor dental hygiene and certain lifestyle choices. I would like to respond to her online posting by setting the record straight. Is this problematic?

Answer: The internet has certainly made it easy for patients to publicly broadcast their criticisms. This is especially true in the case of health care professionals, where a number of websites facilitate the posting of patient “ratings” and the publishing of patient comments regarding diagnosis and treatment received.

Unfortunately for dentists and other health care professionals, the playing field is not level. Patients are free to provide whatever information they wish about either themselves or their dentist. They can post commentary – whether informed or uninformed – unrestrained by any privilege or other confidentiality restrictions. But such freedom is not the case for dentists and other health care professionals.

Generally, HIPAA allows the use of patient information only for treatment, payment, and health care operations purposes, unless you have obtained an authorization from the patient allowing your use of information for some other purpose. Since it is doubtful in the situation you describe that the patient is going to provide you with a written authorization to use information in her patient record to refute what she has posted online, under HIPAA you would be prohibited from doing so.

Read the complete Q&A in the Journal of the Michigan Dental Association on page 28.

About the author:

Daniel J. Schulte answer questions about health care lawDaniel J. Schulte has more than 25 years of experience helping clients solve tough problems and capitalize on opportunities that require a blend of business and legal expertise. His practice focuses on addressing the legal, business, licensing, and regulatory challenges of health care professionals, organizations, and facilities. Dan understands how legal issues impact business objectives and, as a result, offers his clients practical, results-oriented advice. He is a Certified Public Accountant, former managing partner and current executive committee member of the firm. Dan also serves as co-chair of the firm’s Health Care Practice Group.

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