Court: Online patient reviews are protected speech

Amid doctors' wariness about online review sites, the Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday ruled that an online patient review was not defamatory, the Associated Press reported.

The decision ends a four-year legal battle that stemmed from a defamation lawsuit by neurologist David McKee. Following the hospitalization of Dennis Laurion's father at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth, Laurion wrote reviews on several sites, with one claiming a nurse called the doctor "a real tool," the Star Tribune article.

The high court dismissed the defamation lawsuit and reversed an Appeals Court ruling that the statements harmed McKee's reputation and could be proven as false. Moreover, according to the state Supreme Court, it doesn't matter if the unnamed nurse really exists, the AP noted.

"Referring to someone as 'a real tool' falls into the category of pure opinion because the term 'real tool' cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact, and it cannot be proven true or false," the opinion states.

The situation also highlights that defamation lawsuits are not without cost--to the providers and the patients involved.

McKee has spent at least $50,000 in legal fees, as well as $11,000 to clear his reputation after the incident prompted hundreds of negative online reviews. For Laurion, litigation costs have totaled more than two years' income, noted the Star Tribune.

"The financial costs are significant, but money is money, and five years from now, I won't notice the money I spent on this," McKee told the newspaper. "It's been the harm to my reputation through the repeated publicity and the stress."

Providers can take several steps to control their online reputation, such as training staff to impress and keeping listings up to date and accurate. To avoid defamation lawsuits, experts recommend providers first try to resolve the patient's complaint, if a name is provided, and encourage them to remove or amend their review, FiercePracticeManagement previously reported.

For more:
- read the AP article
- here's the Star Tribune article