Consumer-Driven Health Care’s Crazy Side

For the second time, a health-care provider is suing a patient for posting a negative review on Yelp, a website that invites people to submit reviews of restaurants, bars, clothing boutiques, and pretty much whatever else strikes their fancy.

Here in San Francisco we take all things Internet-related very seriously, but I defy anyone to conclude that Yelp is an appropriate source of information on the quality of a health-care provider. (Today’s “review of the day” is by “Liz T.”, who praises Olivo’s restaurant in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood for shifting her “love/hate” relationship with french fries back into the “love” column.)

Dr. Yvonne Wong, DDS, has responded litigiously to the parents of a boy who were upset that her use of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) as an anesthetic left the boy light-headed. (Why do they think it’s called “laughing gas”?!) Furthermore, they complained that she filled the boy’s cavities with fillings containing mercury. Dr. Wong responds that she disclosed to them that she uses mercury fillings, and that they understood this (as evidenced by their signatures on her disclosure). (Actually, how else would they have know that the fillings had mercury in them?)

Strange complaints, to be sure; but stranger still that Dr. Wong would resort to legal action for libel. (Her lawyer tried to sue Yelp, too, but then learned that the third party cannot be held liable.) Sure enough, although the offending review is no longer available, her profile on Yelp now contains comments by a number of people who claim that they would never patronize a dentist who sued her patients!

Whether Dr. Wong’s action is self-defeating or not, I leave to others to decide. What are the implications for public policy? First, if someone actually does libel a health-care provider online, the law should give the professional the same recourse as if the libel were published on a dead tree.

On the other hand, the Internet is a field ripe for responsible, consumer-friendly reviews of health-care providers. Don’t take this as an endorsement, but HealthGrades appears to be the market-leader. It’s a for-profit enterprise funded by advertising and selling its reports.

I understand that HealthGrades does not use consumer-driven information. One very interesting effort in this space is Zagat’s collaboration with health plans to incorporate beneficiaries’ reviews of doctors. It rolled out in Los Angeles, Ohio, and Connecticut in January 2008, and appears to have enjoyed some success, as it has recently expanded into North Carolina. (Someday I have to figure out how health plans choose their pilot-sites. It seems like an odd portfolio.)

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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