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Social media complaints and how to deal with them

29 March 2021

Samantha Stewart, Case Manager at Medical Protection, provides guidance on the best way to respond to complaints on social media

Social media is present all around us and we cannot get away from it. Receiving a complaint is never easy for a healthcare professional, but when the complaint is on social media for everyone to see, it is especially difficult to deal with.

These complaints present healthcare professionals with a unique set of challenges, because having a complaint posted on a Google review or Facebook may bring your practice and your name into disrepute. It could lead to patients, potential or existing, not wanting to attend your practice any longer.

Even though a complaint or negative comment may be frustrating, it may provide a positive learning experience, in that it may afford the practice an opportunity to improve their service to patients. For example, if a patient was complaining about the front desk staff and on investigation it is found that someone at reception is consistently rude to patients, this would provide an opportunity to learn and improve.

Effective handling of complaints can also help to boost the image of a medical practice or a specific healthcare practitioner by repairing existing relationships, and by showing a value-based approach to patients.

Why do patients complain online?

This list is not exhaustive, but highlights the complaints we frequently see at Medical Protection:

  • Incorrect, missed or delayed diagnosis and treatment
  • Delayed referral to specialists or other practitioners
  • Post-surgery complications
  • Poor explanation of treatment options with resultant lack of informed consent (or capacity to consent)
  • Patients feel they were not involved in their treatment plan
  • Lack of or poor explanation of side effects and effects of medication prescribed
  • Inappropriate conduct or behaviour of the doctor
  • Breach of patient confidentiality
  • No feedback or communication from the doctor
  • Medical aid non-payment for which the doctor may be blamed, for example by, not writing a motivation letter in time for an authorisation to be approved
  • Over-servicing or charging too much
  • Manner and attitude of the staff in the practice

How do you deal with an online complaint?

Firstly, remain calm and resist the temptation to respond immediately. It is understandable that you will be upset or angry; however, a knee-jerk response will do little to defuse the situation and may make it worse.

Treat the comment as a formal complaint. Whether you have a formal complaint process in place in your practice or not, it is important to fully investigate the comments and allegations.

If a patient has commented on their medical information in the post, it is not advisable to address these directly as doing so may breach doctor-patient confidentiality. The HPCSA’s Ethical Guidelines on Social Media (Booklet 16) generally discourages healthcare professionals from communicating with patients online. The HPCSA may take issue if a healthcare professional directly responds to a patient on a public platform.

It may be necessary to respond to the post on the online platform by answering in a generic and non-confrontational manner. An example of this could be: “The practice takes note of this concern raised. We are committed to patient satisfaction and we will investigate this matter and respond to you directly.” If the post is from an anonymous or unknown person, you may wish to invite them to contact your practice directly so that you may investigate their complaint sufficiently, with a view to resolving the issue.

Once you have investigated the matter, it would be prudent to contact the patient, if they are known to you, to attempt to resolve the matter and to remove any misunderstanding. Patients are often pleasantly surprised at this response and the situation may be defused once the patient sees that you are taking a genuine interest in the comment made online. They may even remove the post after discussion with you.

It is important to contact Medical Protection if you receive an online comment or complaint as we may be able to assist and provide guidance to you, both in dealing with the review and how to handle the matter when contact is made with the patient. Each complaint is unique and there may be instances where it is prudent not to respond at all. Before advising you, we would need to ask you for any relevant information, and this is why we encourage you to contact us first before taking further steps. It is often useful to send a link or photo of the post for us to review and guide you further. 

Developing a social media policy for your practice may prove useful in dealing with complaints online as there will then be a policy in place on how to deal with these complaints, reviews or comments if they occur.

Medical Protection has previously published useful guides on dealing with patient complaints: 10 steps to complaints handling and Why do patients complain.

In an ever-changing world, the internet has enabled the so-called ‘global community’ and social media has played a major role in shaping that community. Social media is here to stay and will continue to evolve at a rapid pace. As a result, it is crucial for practitioners to keep abreast of developments in this space and to keep an eye on what the regulators say in their social media guidelines and policies. Medical Protection can assist and protect healthcare practitioners in dealing with social media complaints levelled against them as best we can.

Further reading

HPCSA ‘Ethical Guidelines on Social Media’ Booklet 16 2019

Hercz, Gavin Dr. ‘A Curious Case of Patient Complaints using Social Media: Role of technology’ Psycho nephrology From The Blog 13 February 2017

Liu, Jing et al. “What Do Patients Complain About Online: A Systematic Review and Taxonomy Framework Based on Patient Centeredness.” Journal of medical Internet research vol. 21,8 e14634. 7 Aug. 2019, doi:10.2196/14634