I Am a Doctor Who Has Been Defamed on the Internet: What Are My Options?

August 16th, 2012

Doctors have a special relationship with their patients, and patients often have extremely high expectations of doctors. Complicating things is the fact that you’ve got health insurance which may or may not cover certain procedures, you’ve got all these different influences on medical care, and pathways of health and clinical diagnosis. And so, there’s this tremendous opportunity for that often amazing doctor-, physician-patient relationship to go astray.

Welcome to Defamation Law Radio. Internet defamation of character is as easy to perpetuate as a blog post, Facebook update, rating submission, or a forum comment. Your online reputation is measured by the websites return as Google search results. Do you know what people are saying and writing about you?

Doctors have a special relationship with their patients, and patients often have extremely high expectations of doctors. Complicating things is the fact that you’ve got health insurance which may or may not cover certain procedures, you’ve got all these different influences on medical care, and pathways of health and clinical diagnosis. So there’s this tremendous opportunity for that often amazing doctor, physician, and patient relationship to go astray.

In some instances, patients are going to the Internet to various websites, and they are posting clearly defamatory comments about doctors and the physician services that they’re offering. We get calls all the time from doctors who want to know what they can do about being defamed on the Internet on a variety of different websites, whether or not it’s HealthGrades.com, or Rate MDs.com, or Vitals.com, or AngiesList.com, or a variety of other different places where consumers and patients can rate their doctors or post comments on their doctors. Even in a Google Places listing, a patient can go there, and on your location, post a comment that is defamatory about the medical services that you provide.

My name is Defamation Law Attorney, Enrico Schaefer, and today we’re going to be trying to help doctors what their options are when someone, typically a patient, posts a defamatory statement about them online. The first thing that every doctor, physician needs to understand about defamation on the Internet is that, oftentimes, it is very difficult to identify who, in fact, has posted the defamatory libelous comment that the doctor believes is factually inaccurate. A lot of times these various websites allow people to post anonymously, and even when they require the user to register using an e-mail address or what have you, it’s very easy to post false information about who you are when you go ahead and post a defamatory comment.

In fact, in some instances, very little is required by the operator of the website in terms of identification of the person who’s posting things. In many instances, the person who is looking to defame a doctor or physician uses that doctor’s or physician’s name as their name when they then go about and post false and defamatory materials about the services provided. So, identification of the patient which has posted a false and misleading defamatory statement online is typically the first hurdle. Now, in some instances we have doctors who can, with some level of certainty, identify the person who posted based on the information contained in the post, so they can identify it to a particular patient who, in fact, made a similar complaint at the doctor’s office, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Once you get by the issue of identifying the person who’s posted the libelous statement, then you’re going to get into the nuts and bolts of this. Your options as a doctor, who wants to have information removed from the Internet which you believe is defamatory and libelous, is somewhat challenging. Many of these websites are actually designed to encourage ratings, reviews, and in some instances, even defamatory statements because guess what gets more eyeballs. A false negative statement about a doctor that disparages the physician is much more likely to gain traffic for that website operator than something that is positive.

These website operators, the website owners and the website hosts, are protected against claims for defamation on their websites by the Communications Decency Act. Essentially, what that says is that these various providers of web services cannot be sued for third-party postings that are alleged to be defamatory. What does that mean in the Internet law and defamation law vernacular? It means that you typically can only sue the person who posted the information and not the companies that operate the website or host the website or own the domain name. So, there’s this broad immunity granted to the people who actually control the website.

Your first challenge is to identify who you’re dealing with in terms of website operator or owner, domain name owner or the like. Sometimes, they do have policies which discourage negative reviews, and as a matter of their own terms of service or internal policies, they will remove at your request a defamatory review, statement, or comment. In other instances, you are not going to gain any traction unless you file a lawsuit claiming defamation against a John Doe defendant for the material posted on a website. Once you get into court, you can get a subpoena to the website owner and operator in order to identify who, in fact, posted the statement that you’re complaining about onto that website.

Now, there may be an e-mail associated with that account. There may be an IP address that can be then traced upstream of the person who posted the comment. If you find an IP address, then you can go and get another subpoena to the Internet service provider, the ISP who controls that IP address range, and then they can identify for you the account holder for that Internet connection. From there, you typically can find out who, in fact, posted the defamatory statement. By the way, don’t be surprised if the defamation actually was posted by a competing doctor, physician, or someone else who has never even been a patient of yours.

Once you get that far, you start to gain the leverage that you need to have content removed. Now, as an Internet law and defamation law attorney, I fully understand that this is typically about return on investment and reputation. It has to make sense to spend the money to have the content potentially removed in order for it to make sense to financially move forward. Now, if it’s a post that is going to appear on the first page or two of Google search results for the rest of your life, it certainly makes sense to spend $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 in order to get that removed because you may lose that much business over the course of your career in terms of lost business as a result of an extreme or defamatory statement. These are issues which do break down by return on investment.

If your reputation is important to you, then it may make sense to spend the money even if you’re not losing business because you’re going to lose relationships, you’re going to lose stature with the medical community, and these are things that are incredibly important to you. There are any number of different approaches that a defamation lawyer or attorney will use in matters such as this. These are all very case-specific, fact-specific matters, and as Internet lawyers, we understand how to deal with the back end of the Internet in order to identify people and understand how websites typically handle these issues, we know where to exert leverage, and we know how to give you your best chance of having content removed if it is, in fact, defamatory, but they are all fact-specific.

So, you should contact an Internet law and defamation law attorney, someone who understands both defamation law and how the Internet works, and they will give you your options and the prices that might be involved in terms of legal fees for handling one of these matters. If you are a doctor who is a victim of online Internet-based defamation, you should fully understand your options and your rights so that you can make a smart business decision moving forward.

My name is Internet Law and Defamation Law Attorney, Enrico Schaefer. We’ll talk to you next time. That’s our show for today. I hope that you learned something about doctor defamation and how to combat it. Thank you and have a great day.

You’ve been listening to Defamation Law Radio, where defamation of character, slander, and libel are always the topic of the day.  Whether you are a defamation attorney or a client, we are the number one resource for all your defamation questions.