Next time you fill out paperwork at the doctor's office, read it carefully. You could be signing a gag order.
Some doctors, tired of being criticized online by patients for long wait times, dirty offices and speedy examinations, are fighting back, requiring patients to sign waiver forms that ban them from rating their doctors on web sites, reports the Washington Post.
Patients with either a rose to toss or an ax to grind now have over 40 websites to choose from. RateMD, Angie's List, Yelp, DrScore, and Vitals.com, whose tagline reads, "Where doctors are examined," are among the most popular.
Jeffrey Segal, a retired neurosurgeon from Greensboro, N.C., is the founder of Medical Justice, a company that provides sample privacy agreements and monitors patient comments online for a fee, starting at $495. About 2,000 doctors have signed up, using the service to ask websites to take down comments by patients who have signed the waiver, even pursuing legal action, in some cases.
"We've learned how hard it is to protect and preserve a doctor's reputation,"said Segal, noting what he called the "Wild West atmosphere" of the Internet. "We're not opposed to free speech, we're trying to smooth out the extremes."
Some say the waiver forms are really gag orders, and banning patients from talking about their experience in the doctor's office is both unethical and unenforceable.
"Consumers have been talking about their experiences with physicians forever," Angie's List founder Angie Hicks told the Post. "It's moved online, just as other parts of our communication with friends and family have."
John Swapceinski, founder of RateMDs.com, has detailed ratings of more than 200,000 doctors across the country. The site even provides links to the medical board, where patients can check disciplinary histories and even malpractice payments, depending on the city. Thus far, doctors have been trying to fight back the traditional way.
"We get threatened with lawsuits on a pretty much weekly basis," he said, admitting that they have occasionally buckled at the threat of a court battle even though the site offers doctors the space for rebuttal. "We're not just out to 'out' the bad ones, but to point out the good ones."
Doctors, however, feel the rating system found on some sites range from the simplistic to the insane.
"The people least capable of judging quality of care are patients," said Nancy Faulk, an internist who's been given both glowing and scathing reviews. "They don't know what we know," said Faulk.
Nicolae Filipescu, a Northern Virginia OB-GYN who's ratings on RateMD range from 'the best' to 'run as fast as you can,' said critical patients could just be mentally unstable.
"You have to realize that some patients are somewhat disturbed," said Filipescu."I don't get complaints for the Medical Society of Virginia or the State Medical Board."
Despite his own scathing review of patients, Filipescu said patients have the right to post their comments and reviews.
"It's a freedom of speech issue, let them say what they want."
Nancy Faulk just wishes for once, the tables could be turned.
"I'd love to have a web site where I could complain about patients," she said. "All doctors would."