Shaming Your Doctor on Facebook

My wife was upset and angry when she called me. She had been scrolling through a community Facebook page for Huntington Beach and come across a scathing post against me and my office. An angry and upset patient had written multiple paragraphs, accusing me of billing for services I did not provide, of being rude, arrogant and mean, and saying my staff reflected the same attitude. The page has over 20,000 followers and many of them, some of whom had no personal experience with my office, had joined the mob of commenters,  supporting the patient and her opinions. Many of the negative comments were personal.

I was at breakfast with a friend when she called. I excused myself and hurried home to deal with the online damage. My wife had gallantly tried to defend my honor only to see some of the attackers turn on her as well. I stared at the screen for a few moments and debated how to respond. Doctors cannot respond as other businesses do as privacy laws do not allow us to reveal any personal details about patients or their conditions. I typed out a general response, trying to graciously and kindly explain that the statements did not accurately reflect my interaction with the patient or the nature of my practice. That post was criticized and attacked by strangers as well.

In the meantime a few of my patients noticed the post and came to my defense. Many shared personal stories of care they had received. Others reached out to the administrator and asked that the negative post be removed. The post was taken down within a few hours but not before hundreds of local residents had read it. I wondered if any lasting damage had been done. My wife and I were both shaken by the nature of the attack. She even said, “If I were you I would want to quit!” At that moment I did.

I thought about the patient who had written the post (which she also left in the form of a review on my office Facebook page) and wondered at the intensity of her anger. I looked back on her single visit, which had been uncomfortable from the outset. She did not like the fees that we charge and had made her feelings clear to the receptionist on her arrival. It seemed her unhappiness carried over into the exam room. I nevertheless spent a great deal of time with her and did the best that I could to meet her needs. I failed. A few weeks later she went to another doctor and first made her accusations of false billing. When that office called me and questioned the billing I waived all charges and asked that she not return. I hoped that waiving charges would calm her anger. I was wrong.

My wife and I spend much of the morning talking about the incident. As we reflected on what had happened we kept returning to the meanness of it all. While we could understand someone being unhappy with their care we could not understand the intent to harm and destroy. When posts are shared with thousands of people the harm is real. (The following day a new patient told me she had read the post and nearly cancelled her visit! It was only when she read my reply that she decided to give me a chance.)

We wondered, “What has happened in our society that people so easily attack one another?” In the old days patients could file a private grievance with their health plan or medical group and have the incident investigated. Because the matter wasn't public doctors could openly share their side of the story. In the vast majority of cases all would see that the doctor had been misunderstood or that the patient did not understand what was going on and the problem would simply go away. The patient would move on.

Things are different today. One slight misstep, one mistake, one bad day or simple miscommunication can result in anger raining down. This is not unique to doctors. Everyone is under the microscope. Just a few months ago on the same community Facebook page someone posted about children playing roughly with baby ducks at a public fountain while their mother did nothing to intervene. At least one of the ducks was seriously injured. The poster, furious with the seemingly uninvolved mother, attacked her on the community page. People searched Facebook, found the mother’s profile page and publicly outed her. She was viciously attacked and publicly shamed.

The mother’s story, and mine, are important reminders that social media attacks hurt people. People who may be doing the best they can, people who may just be having a bad day. The patient who attacked me had no knowledge of how hard I have worked over the years to be a kinder and more compassionate physician. She had no knowledge of the free care given, the house calls made, the hands held, the tearful hugs shared or the prayers offered. All she knew was her single experience, and even then she only knew her side. For her that was enough to pass judgment.

If we are to be kind and generous we need to be more cautious in our judgments. We need to give people the benefit of the doubt, to assume the best and not the worst in others. All people have bad days and bad moments. We need to be understanding forgive and when we can’t we should strive to keep our anger private. No one wants to live in a world where every mistake is public record. Life is hard enough.

I need to change my attitude as well. I need to extend more grace to others. There are times I have left a negative review of a restaurant based on single bad meal or rude server. This recent experience reminds me of how wrong that is. What right do I have to judge someone’s business based on a single interaction? This is someone’s livelihood, something into which they may have invested their life’s savings. Negative reviews can do real harm not just to a business, but to a person. They hurt. I need to be less critical.

I intend to intentionally look for ways I can be more gracious. It may seem silly, but after this experience I went on my Yelp account and deleted negative reviews. It was a small step but it is a step.

As for my professional life, I will continue to do what I have always done. I will try to be better each day, to communicate kindness and compassion as best as I can. When I fail, as I did with this patient, I will do my best to learn what I can and apply the lessons to my practice. Not just because the world is watching, but because it is the right thing to do.

- Bart

PS: I called the patient later that day. The conversation wasn't wonderful but I was able to hear her concerns and why she was angry, and was able to show her that I wasn't the man she had accused me of being. "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." Romans 12:18

Thanks for reading and sharing and commenting. Comments are welcomed.