Cleveland, OH — The State Supreme Court just resolved a 10-year battle between the Cleveland Clinic and a former patient, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel David Antoon, who alleged that the distinguished hospital botched his prostate surgery. Judges ruled in favor of the Clinic, to whose surgeon Antoon had been sending articles about medical malpractice and its consequences for years, earning Antoon a civil stalking protection order that forbade him from contacting his doctor. But Antoon faced a lawsuit from the Clinic after he published a Yelp review—a rather negative one—alleging that surgical malpractice had made him impotent and incontinent. (Unfortunately, these are known complications of prostatectomy.)

Medical malpractice lawsuits are common, but the Cleveland Clinic’s suit showcases a less recognized phenomenon: that of doctors suing patients. Such lawsuits are rare, as physician-patient confidentiality rules make it difficult to discuss matters publicly. But online forums like Yelp have brought many such cases to the fore.

Online reviews provide patients with a critical means of sharing their experiences and feelings about caregivers, but people must be wary of publishing factually incorrect information. Jazz singer Sherri Petta was ordered to pay $12 million for defamation, after authoring Yelp reviews about her unsatisfactory rhinoplasty. (The ruling was overturned.)  Though Antoon entered into a plea deal and settled, he’d initially faced up to a year in prison. 

Patients who feel they have been harmed by a doctor should first communicate with their doctor directly. Afterward, advisable alternatives to Yelp reviews include filing complaints with the state Attorney General’s office or other oversight agency, or consulting with a lawyer.  

Why This Matters

One of the central mandates of HCP regulators is to address negative or harmful patient experiences. But the growing number of online caregiver reviews that are potentially injurious to both parties strongly suggests that patients, after being discharged, can’t access the communication channels they need. 

Lisa McGiffert, who used to lead Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project, has advocated for a federal database to which people can report medical errors. Without such a system, she argues, sites like Yelp are the only way many people can get honest reviews of physicians. “This is what happens when your system of oversight is failing patients,” she says.

About the Author:

Ben helps spark innovative healthcare thinking as Associate Director of Innovation. Previously on the editorial staff of Vanity Fair, he brings experience in engaging, rigorous storytelling to the healthcare world. Ben’s goals are to move brands to rethink their roles, own their evolving narratives, and maintain vital and vigorous consumer relationships.