Dr Yash Naidoo, Case Manager at Medical Protection, provides guidance on the best way to respond to complaints on social media.
Social media is a part of our lives and almost impossible to avoid in these modern times. Information is readily available at our fingertips. This is particularly the case in South Africa, with such high rates of mobile and smartphone penetration. It is not unlikely that you may have accessed this article via social media on your phone or tablet.
There are a number of benefits to social media. It has been a boon for many businesses and service providers who are able to reach a wide audience with ease. Digital connectivity has also enabled many people to continue earning a living – and in the case of healthcare professionals, treat patients – despite strict lockdown regulations. The benefits also extend to consumers, in that they are able to have quick access to their service providers. Naturally, this has led to the common practice of complaints on social media.
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 deter potential and even existing patients from attending your practice.
For a practitioner, a complaint is understandably upsetting as it strikes at the core of one’s professional values and everything we work for daily. However, complaints should be viewed constructively as a learning opportunity. Complaints may give the practice an opportunity to improve their service to patients. For example, if a patient complained 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 upskill the staff and provide a better service to patients in general.
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?
Complaints on social media often stem from a breakdown in communication. In many cases, patients feel that they have nowhere else to go, and turn to social media as a last resort in the hopes that their grievances get attention. Remember, by airing their complaint on social media, patients are taking a relatively drastic step by potentially disclosing their intimate personal information on a public platform. Complaints on social media are therefore not necessarily done on a whim, despite the common perception to the contrary.
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, try to remain calm and resist the temptation to respond immediately. It is understandable that you may be upset; 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 social media post, it is not advisable to address these complaints publicly 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 general 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 issue may be resolved once the patient sees that you are taking a genuine interest in the comment made online. They may even agree to 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 it is advisable to seek assistance first before taking further steps.
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 members in responding to and resolving social media complaints related to their professional practice.
HPCSA ‘Ethical Guidelines on Social Media’ Booklet 16 2019
With thanks to former Medical Protection case manager, Samantha Stewart, for her contribution to this article.
For more information on how to improve your communication skills, visit our Communication Hub here.