Yelp, the online review service that allows consumers to use stars to rate businesses, including hospitals and physician practices, is not liable for negative reviews on its site, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the San Francisco-based company can't be held responsible for libelous reviews posted by users. The judges cited the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects websites that post third-party material from libel claims.
The lawsuit was brought by Douglas Kimzey, the owner of a Washington state locksmith company who claimed to have lost 95% of his business after getting a one-star review on Yelp.
Like other businesses, healthcare organizations are subject to online reviews from patients. Yelp is the most commonly used review site for patients seeking providers, according to a 2014 survey of 4,620 people from Software Advice, a consulting company. The report found 61% of patients will use review sites before choosing a physician and that nearly half, or 44%, of respondents would consider going to an out-of-network physician if their reviews were better.
Yelp partnered in August 2015 with not-for-profit journalism organization ProPublica to offer quality statistics for hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis clinics to patients. A recent study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found Yelp reviews offer valuable information to caregivers and administrators.
Providers should frequently look at reviews on sites such asYelp to gauge how their organization is viewed by the public, said Christina Thielst, a healthcare consultant and former hospital chief operating officer.
Providers should view negative reviews as an opportunity to improve their reputation, Thielst said. Organizations should address negative reviews by responding to the comment with a number to call to discuss the issue further. This tactic can also protect providers from false reviews, she said. “If patients are seeing you're listening and reach out to people they may be less likely to put something that is not true.”
Thielst also notes the importance of withholding any medical information when responding to negative comments. Physicians have come under fire for revealing sensitive patient information when responding to online Yelp reviews, the Washington Post reported.
“Social media is ramping up the word-of-mouth recommendations that people have always made,” Thielst said. “Healthcare providers need to be going on Yelp and similar sites to see what their patients are saying about them.”