Censorship, or Sensible Citizenship? Physicians Take Steps to Stop Online Libel

A growing number of physicians across the nation are requiring their patients to agree that they will not post negative statements about them on the Internet.  Medical Justice, founded by Dr. Jeffrey Segal, which has some 2000 members at this time, prescribes this waiver as a method of protecting their practices against false allegation.  The document gives them basis to have a damaging libelous statement removed from a site.  The waiver has some in an uproar, claiming violation of their First Amendment rights.  

The U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment protects citizens against censorship by the government, not from each other.  The individual or business entity remains entirely within its rights to constrain speech, with or without cause.  More importantly, these patients are entirely free to go elsewhere if they’re unwilling to agree to this condition of service.

Angie Hicks, of Angie’s List, is apparently amongst those who don’t grasp the true nature of the First Amendment.  She goes so far as to call the waiver “an attempt to steal the consumers’ right to free speech.”  She claims her company “goes to great lengths to ensure accuracy and fairness in the member reports,” and that the vast majority of comments have been positive, suggesting that the physicians’ fears of baseless damaging statements being posted are unfounded.  

Ms. Hicks can speak only for her own online presence.  Craigslist, for example, shows a very different story, with unbridled mayhem occuring all over the nation, in the guise of free speech.  Ms. Hicks claims that “Doctors should stop underestimating their patients’ ability to measure the quality of care they receive and focus instead on providing good care and treating their patients with respect.”  The facts argue sharply against her Pollyanna perspective.

Though censorship is anathema to many, those with full facts would concur with Dr. Segal’s position; Uncontestable false allegation is far more anathematic.   Literally anyone can publish literally anything on the Internet, fact or fiction, baseless or valid. The site is not even required to post contrary views. (Its owners remain free to censor at will.)  Considering the potential for lawful libel, the measure isn’t censorship, as much as it is an attempt to protect against someone talking trash from a one-way pulpit.  It happens far too frequently, despite Ms. Hicks’ claim.

Many independent studies have consistently shown that 75% of the malpractice suits filed against physicians are frivolous, lacking in basis of fact. Even when reviewed by a tribunal of an independent doctor, lawyer and judge, the same percentage of cases are found to lack merit. This means that 3 times out of 4, a patient is wrongly accusing his physician.  Whether the reason is greed or because the patient has an axe to grind over a perceived wrong or loss, it still comes down to 3/4 of the cases filed (and endorsed by a lawyer willing to take the case) are baseless. Imagine how much more likely it is for the general public to speak falsely against that physician if they don’t even need to find an attorney willing to concur.

Once an allegation is made, the damage is done.  Consider that some medical malpractice insurance companies will settle smaller suits out of court, just because it costs less than the legal fees would have been to defend the frivolous case. Some professional malpractice policies don’t even give the physician a choice in the matter. The company pays, the doctor’s reputation gets trashed, and there never was a shred of validity to the claim in the first place.

Given the nature of online allegations and the potential for irreparable damage caused by such false accusations, Dr. Jeffrey Segal and his fellows are spot-on.  Potential patients who check online often do so with a “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” mentality. They’ll avoid someone who is being spoken of badly, regardless of validity. “Why take a chance?” they figure, and instead go to a doctor who doesn’t (yet) have any question-marks alongside his name.

Doctors, patients, and insurance companies alike, we’re all for lower healthcare costs. Medical Justice is also in favor of healthcare reform.  Malpractice suits, and the measures physicians must take to protect themselves from them, create considerable increases in costs. These physicians are after reasonable protections from damage based on false allegation.  In doing so, they’re working to keep health care costs down. It’s entirely understandable, even laudable, that they’d require patients not type ill about them on such a one-sided forum.  Sensible citizenship would suggest that the patients support them as they do so.

In protecting one’s professional reputation, it is also very important that the physician’s malpractice policy lets the doctor choose whether or not to settle a claim.  As an independent broker, Presidio is free to direct physicians towards the carrier that offers their clients the best possible protections for their practice.

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