Historically, if a patient was dissatisfied with care, he or she could tell his or her friends and family. The criticism was limited to a small circle of people. If the patient was injured negligently, he or she could hire an attorney to prosecute a lawsuit. The threshold for finding an attorney and prevailing posed a significant barrier for the patient achieving redress. With the Internet, if a patient is unhappy he or she needs do little more than access a growing number of Internet physician rating sites. Such criticism can be rendered anonymously. The posts are disseminated worldwide, and once posted, the criticism rarely comes down. While transparency is a laudable goal, such sites often lack accountability. More formal sites run by authoritative bodies, such as medical licensing boards, also provide data about physicians, but such data is often unfiltered, making it difficult for the public to properly interpret.
Given how important reputation is to physicians, the traditional remedy of suing for defamation because of libelous posts is ordinarily ineffective. First, many patients who post libelous comments, do so anonymously. Next, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) hosting such sites are generally immune from liability for defamation. Finally, the law has a very formal definition for libel, and a negative rating does not necessarily equate to “defamation.”
A novel method of addressing un-policed physician rating sites in the Internet age is described. The system embraces the use of mutual privacy contracts to provide physicians a viable remedy to anonymous posts. In exchange, patients receive additional privacy protections above and beyond that mandated by law.