RealSelf.com reviews can act as an invaluable marketing tool for physicians and plastic surgeons. But when RealSelf reviews are fake or libelous, they can have a serious impact on your business and your bottom line.
To remove negative or fake RealSelf reviews, we recommend that physicians, plastic surgeons, and other medical providers take the following steps:
- Be mindful of HIPAA and other confidentiality obligations before commencing with removal;
- Verify if the review is fake by consulting patient records, analyzing the review’s language, and investigating the reviewer’s profile;
- Assess if the review violates RealSelf’s Terms of Service or Code of Conduct;
- Contact RealSelf’s customer support through its general online support form and describe how the review violates RealSelf’s Terms of Service or Conduct of Conduct;
- Dispute the review by submitting a detailed complaint to RealSelf via its ‘Dispute a Review’ form;
- Work with an experienced internet attorney to pursue legal action to remove the review(s).
At Minc Law, we work closely with physicians, plastic surgeons, and other medical providers to remove fake reviews from online platforms. We understand how much of an impact false negative reviews can have on a medical professional’s reputation. We also understand both the legal and ethical complexities of responding to negative online reviews.
In this article, we discuss why fake reviews on RealSelf pose such a serious threat to your medical practice and professional reputation. We also discuss how to go about removing that negative content, both through RealSelf’s platform and through legal channels, while being aware of professional, ethical, and legal duties.
Why Fake Reviews on RealSelf Pose a Serious Threat to Your Medical Practice
RealSelf.com is a healthcare marketplace where prospective patients can research elective cosmetic medical treatments and connect with plastic surgeons, physicians, and other medical providers. RealSelf primarily targets consumers seeking out plastic or cosmetic surgery, dermatology and dentistry services, or other minimally invasive treatments.
Every month, millions of people research procedures and search for medical professionals on RealSelf. The review site features more than 30,000 board-certified doctors and healthcare professionals. In 2017, RealSelf had over 2 million user-generated reviews posted to its platform, a number which has grown considerably since.
RealSelf enables reviewers to upload images to bolster their reviews. When searching reviews of medical professionals on the platform, consumers will typically encounter dozens of photos associated with the review, such as before and after photos of the patient. However, users can also post misleading photographs that do not accurately reflect the outcome of a medical professional’s provided services, such as photos taken during the healing process.
Why Do Fake Reviews on RealSelf Pose a Serious Threat to Your Medical Practice?
Fake and negative reviews on RealSelf pose a serious threat to your future business, as they can have a substantial impact on a potential patient’s perception of you and your practice.
An estimated 94% of all potential healthcare patients seek out online reviews to evaluate medical providers before engaging them. According to a 2016 study by the Harvard Business Review, 48% of patients noted that physician ratings and comments influenced their choice of doctor. On average, a potential patient only looks at one to six online reviews before forming an opinion on a provider or practice. This means that even one bad review can cause a patient to look elsewhere.
Furthermore, around 84% of consumers consider reviews to be as trustworthy as personal recommendations from friends and family.
Once a single negative review has been posted, it can have a cascading effect. Some users who leave bad reviews will point to other negative reviews to make their own reviews look more trustworthy. This can open the floodgates to yet more negative reviews as other users engage in dialogue about the negative reviews.
Some users who write fake negative reviews may also become emboldened when they see there are no consequences for posting false allegations. This can invite yet more negative reviews.
But there are even bigger concerns if you are targeted for negative reviews. False online reviews can potentially open you up to regulatory investigations, fines, and other disciplinary actions.
The impact and importance of online reviews on a medical practice cannot be overstated, so it is critical to address negative (and fake) reviews head-on and before they begin to compound themselves.
Who Posts Negative & Fake Reviews on RealSelf?
The purpose of false reviews is to persuade or manipulate readers and potential patients into thinking a specific aspect or viewpoint about the medical practice is false. Typically, there are three types of posters that post negative and fake reviews on RealsSelf.com.
Actual Patients Who Had a Negative Experience
These patients had a genuine, negative experience and marketplace interaction, but then falsified aspects of that interaction. This is often done with malicious intent. The patient may create multiple review accounts and leave multiple negative reviews, often describing the interaction as worse than it was, or describing interactions that did not actually occur.
Competitors in Your Industry
These reviews are left with malicious intent or ulterior motives, such as with the purpose of diverting business from you and improving a competing businesses’ market share.
Third-Parties With a Grudge or Seeking Revenge
A third party who has a grudge against your business, including former employees, may post these types of reviews to exact revenge. Sometimes individuals who leave these reviews may be doing it for purposes of extortion.
How Do You Find a Doctor’s Credentials & Reviews on RealSelf?
RealSelf.com is a user-generated content platform similar to Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Google Reviews, meaning the content that is found on the site is created and disseminated strictly by its users. RealSelf connects potential patients to doctors and medical practices through its marketplace.
RealSelf enables prospective patients to research a doctor’s credentials by using the “Search tab” at the top of the site. Users can also search by clicking on the tab “Find a Doctor,” or using the tabs “Procedures” or “Photos & Reviews” and clicking through the “Book a consultation” button.
If a patient is unsure of which medical professional they want to engage, they can also search for a potential doctor or plastic surgeon by inputting their geographic location and the type of procedure they need. Doctors and practices publicize their services through their profiles.
Once a patient searches for a doctor using any of these methods, they will see a star rating associated with a doctor or medical practice. They can also dig deeper and read written reviews by past patients, view before and after photos, and browse Q & As directed to the service provider.
How to Spot Fake Reviews on RealSelf
Some fake online reviews may be difficult to spot. Especially when they are reviews that are left by former employees or patients and have a grain of truth to them.
Nevertheless, there are a few common ways to spot a fake online review.
Consult Your Patient Records
Consult your business records to see if the poster’s name matches or resembles one of your patients. Check to see if the patient’s experience matches what is on their chart.
Investigate the Reviewer’s Online Account
If the account is brand new, or the account has only been used to post a single review, this should raise alarm bells that the RealSelf reviewer is not genuine.
Check the Username
The reviewer’s username itself may be suspicious. Is the reviewer using an anonymous name like John Doe? A childish name like C.A. Butt? Is the image associated with the username a stock image? If the patient is not posting under their real identity, it is important to approach the review with skepticism.
Look at When the Reviews Were Posted
If you suddenly see a string of one-star reviews when previously your reviews have been stellar, it is more likely you are a victim of a concerted fake review attack.
If you find that the reviews are posted at odd times, when you would expect most of your patients to be asleep, that could also show that the reviews are being left by a malicious third party – such as an outsourced, professional review “hitman” agency outside of the United States.
Look to the Language
What do the reviews actually say? If the review inaccurately describes your services and then recommends a competitor instead, that is an indication the review could be fake. If there are multiple negative reviews, check to see if they resemble each other, even if the usernames are different. They may all have been left by the same person.
Analyze Whether the Review is a “Hit Job”
Some competitors are unscrupulous. They may hire outside companies to bombard review platforms with fake, negative reviews. These are often outsourced to individuals and agencies in foreign countries.
Look for broken English, improper grammar, and postings made at odd times. The use of multiple exclamation points can also indicate a fake review. These are all indications you have been the subject of a professional hit job.
What Percentage of RealSelf Reviews Are Fake?
It is uncertain what percentage of RealSelf reviews are fake. However, a large percentage of internet reviews overall are fake. A 2019 BrightLocal survey, examining the impact of consumer reviews on businesses, estimated that over 60% of electronics Amazon reviews are in fact fake, while nearly one in seven reviews on Trip Advisor may also not be genuine.
Whether online reviews are fake is not always clear. Younger consumers are typically more aware of fake reviews due to generational familiarity with electronics and the internet. For instance, 92% of 18 to 34 year-olds believe they have read a fake review in the last year. For consumers over the age of 54, only 59% believe they have spotted one.
Are RealSelf Reviews Anonymous?
RealSelf reviews are as anonymous as the poster wants them to be. RealSelf allows users to create a completely anonymous username and allows users to change their usernames in their settings at any time.
How Does RealSelf Detect Fake Reviews?
RealSelf does not publicize its moderation algorithm.
However, RealSelf does moderate all reviews using a multi-step process that “leverages both technology and human analysis.” All reviewers must have a valid email address. When a RealSelf user attempts to leave a review of a doctor or other provider, the user must also have a valid phone number. RealSelf calls or texts the reviewer at this number and requires the user to enter a code before they can proceed with the review.
RealSelf also has steps it undertakes that help it determine that the user:
- Has provided enough information, including the treatment received, so that other people will find the review helpful;
- Does not have a conflict of interest; and
- Has not been compensated for their review.
In addition, RealSelf states that it will ensure that each review meets its Terms of Service.
Ways to Remove Fake Reviews From RealSelf
As a first step, claim your individual or medical practice’s profile on RealSelf so that you can interact with the platform. You can claim your free profile here. You can also upgrade your free profile via a paid membership.
We will discuss below ways to remove fake reviews from RealSelf. But before removal, you want to be sure to preserve the fake review. Take a screenshot of the review and profile behind it, print it out, or otherwise document the review.
It is also important to document evidence of damages the review may have caused to your medical practice. For instance, if you know that you lost a patient because of the review, you will want to note that.
Finally, act quickly to get the review taken down. This is particularly important if the review accuses you of a crime, malpractice, racism, sexism, or other discrimination.
What Are the Most Common Reasons Reviews Violate RealSelf Guidelines?
Reviews must not violate RealSelf.com’s Terms of Service and Code of Conduct. This means that the review must generally abide by the following rules. Reviews that do not follow these rules may be subject to removal.
The most common reasons reviews are not published or are removed include:
- Hearsay. This is when a user does not discuss their own experience but relays the experience of someone else.
- Reviews from an employee, family, or friend of the practitioner. These are seen as biased. Similarly, reviews written in exchange for money or promotion are seen as biased.
- Anything unlawful. Reviews that contain threats, engage in cyberbullying, or otherwise have or encourage unlawful conduct will not be published or will be removed.
- Inappropriate language. Excessive swearing, name-calling, or other inappropriate language will also cause a review not to be published or to be removed.
Additional reasons a post may not be published or may be removed include when the review:
- Purports to give medical advice,
- Discusses suicide, violence, or self-harm, including self-administering procedures, without a license to practice medicine,
- Contains sexual content or puts unwelcome sexual attention upon others,
- Has gratuitous nudity that is irrelevant to the topic being discussed,
- Includes third-party content, including copyrighted material or text, photos, or video copied from another source,
- Contains contact information, or
- Is otherwise not in line with the intent of the website, for instance, is spam, requests donations, and so forth.
If the fake review violates the above RealSelf policies and procedures, you can seek to have it removed.
What Are Common Reasons RealSelf Does Not Remove Online Reviews?
However, not all reviews should be disputed, even if they are negative. RealSelf is unlikely to remove the following types of reviews:
- Reviews that are pure opinions and genuine expressions of personal experiences, unless they otherwise violate the rules discussed above.
- Reviews that are “he said, she said.”. RealSelf will not mediate disputes between a patient and doctor.
If you do determine that the review is fake and should be removed, we discuss below how you can effectively remove fake RealSelf reviews.
What Are Some Ways to Remove Fake Reviews from RealSelf?
There are five main ways to remove a fake review from RealSelf. These are:
- Report the fake review via RealSelf’s Submit a Request Form,
- Dispute the review via RealSelf’s platform,
- Request removal directly from the poster,
- Contact an experienced internet defamation attorney,
- Pursue legal action over the fake review and obtain a court order.
These are each discussed in more detail below. Keep in mind: Doctors should never pay to alter or remove consumer reviews.
Report the Fake Review Via RealSelf’s Submit a Request Form
If you believe that the review has violated RealSelf’s Terms of Service or Code of Conduct, you can contact customer support. You can submit a removal request by filling out RealSelf’s Submit a Request Form and asking that it be removed. From the drop-down menu, choose “General Support” and then fill out the remaining items on the form.
Dispute the Review Via RealSelf’s Platform if It Violates RealSelf’s Terms of Service
Doctors have access to free dispute resolution if they believe the review violates the site’s ToS and guidelines. You can do this by filling out the form here.
On the form, you will be asked to fill out the provider’s name, email address, disputed review URL, the reason for disputing (either violation of Terms of Service or court order), a summary of why it violates the Terms of Service, a court order to remove content (if applicable), and any additional details.
You can send attachments or other information to: firstname.lastname@example.org. However, ethical and privacy rules still apply. Do not send private medical information or records.
Request Removal by the Poster
You have an opportunity to respond to posts from reviewers on RealSelf. If you have a negative review, you may consider responding to the poster directly. However, the medical field can be a legal and ethical minefield, so it is critical to understand all confidentiality and regulatory obligations when responding to a reviewer.
Video: How Medical Professionals Can Remove & Respond to Negative Patient Reviews
For example, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act restricts medical providers responses to online reviews, prohibiting them from:
- Acknowledging the reviewer was a patient,
- Identifying the patient by name or personal details,
- Discussing individualized patient procedures and experiences.
Medical providers may respond ethically (and legally) to online reviews by making general statements about your medical practices’ procedures, policies, and services.
For example, you may ask if there is anything you could do to resolve their concern or respond in general terms about your healthcare practice’s policies and procedures. If the user feels heard, they may be inclined to remove the review. Even if they do not, your response can show other potential patients that you care.
If you can identify who the patient is from the review, you may consider calling or emailing them directly to see how you can alleviate their bad experience. Do not offer to pay them to take down their negative review.
Why Can Hiring an Attorney Help Protect Your Online Reputation on RealSelf?
If you are unsuccessful in reporting the review or contacting RealSelf, an experienced internet attorney can provide additional assistance in getting the fake review taken down. Many online platforms retain their own attorneys and in-house counsel.
Experienced internet attorneys are often familiar with the major platforms’ attorneys through their work, which may provide an opportunity to escalate the removal matter to the person who has the power to remove the negative reviews when warranted.
Even with professional connections, sometimes a review will not be removed. If that is the case, and you decide to pursue legal action, an internet defamation attorney can navigate through the difficult process of filing a defamation lawsuit to remove the fake review(s). This process is discussed more below. If the reviewer is anonymous, an internet defamation attorney can also help identify the anonymous poster and hold them accountable for their unlawful conduct.
Internet defamation attorneys can also help navigate the potential ethical and privacy concerns (including HIPAA) raised in responding to an online review.
Please understand that if you need to get the medical board involved, this is not generally within the practice area of an internet attorney. Matters involving the medical board should be referred to your healthcare practice’s in-house counsel.
Pursue Legal Action Over the Fake RealSelf Review
Not all negative reviews can or should result in legal action. For instance, if the negative review is an outlier among many positive reviews, it may not cause significant damage to your reputation. If you try to pursue court action against a valid review, even if it is negative, you could find yourself subject to a lawsuit yourself.
But in some situations, particularly when the allegations are serious enough to harm your reputation, you may want to consult an internet attorney about pursuing legal action. Instances when a lawsuit may be warranted include:
- When the user appears to be leaving multiple fake reviews,
- When the allegations are serious in nature, such as:
- Harming a patient,
- Criminal activity,
- Sexual assault or harassment,
- Racial discrimination,
- Other discrimination.
Another situation where a lawsuit may be appropriate is if the user is anonymous and you are having trouble learning the identity of the poster. An experienced internet attorney can help file a John Doe lawsuit to uncover the identity of the anonymous poster.
A lawsuit, if successful, could result in a court order requiring the negative review to be taken down. This court order could then be provided to RealSelf via their dispute form.
Can Doctors Delete Reviews on RealSelf?
Doctors cannot delete negative reviews on RealSelf. The poster can remove the review. Or RealSelf will remove the review if it violates the Terms of Service or a court order requires its removal. If you are a provider or surgeon and believe a RealSelf review may violate the Terms of Service, you can dispute it over at: https://expert.realself.com/dispute-create.html.
Legal Options for Responding to Fake or Negative RealSelf Reviews
Receiving a negative review, particularly a false negative review, can have a devastating impact on your medical practice and it may be tempting to respond off the cuff to protect your reputation.
However, physicians are bound by strict rules and regulations that make responding to online reviews an ethical minefield. The recommended practice is not to respond to online reviews at all.
For example, under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), physicians are very limited in what they can include in their response to a review. The only types of responses to online reviews that healthcare professionals are allowed to make are simple statements about general practices and procedures. As mentioned above, medical professionals must avoid:
- Acknowledging that an individual was a patient,
- Identifying the patient using their name, and
- Discussing individual patient outcomes, procedures, and experiences.
Revealing prohibited information, including in online reviews, can result in a fine or disciplinary action.
What You Can Expect When Working With an Attorney to Deal With RealSelf Reviews
Navigating the legal world when you are not an attorney can be overwhelming. It is frustrating to try to get a defamatory review taken down and see no progress being made.
Internet attorneys work to remove defamatory content every day. They know how to present your removal request or defamation case in a clear, compelling way. Simply put, when an attorney is involved, it is more likely that the review will come down.
Attorneys can compile and preserve key evidence for you and organize your experience into a clear, chronological timeline. This is important in presenting your most convincing case for removal. Often, you only get one chance. You need to do it right the first time.
Additionally, an experienced internet attorney may have professional connections to various consumer review platforms, such as RealSelf, Vitals, or Healthgrades. They know what these platforms are looking for in a successful removal because they have experience navigating their reporting procedures and submission guidelines.
Finally, working with an experienced defamation attorney can help you navigate the complexities of HIPAA and other professional or ethical requirements. They can lay out your options for you and help you decide your best path forward, without getting you into legal trouble of your own.
What Are Some Legal Options For Responding to Fake or Negative RealSelf Reviews?
As discussed above, the safest option when you receive a defamatory review is not to respond, but to work to get it taken down. However, if you feel you must respond, you have two options. First, you can respond generally. Or second, you can include a disclaimer on your site. These options are discussed below.
Respond Generally (Do Not Acknowledge Any Personal Information)
Generally, the best practice is not to respond at all or to respond only in general terms about the policies and procedures of your office.
However, if you feel you do determine that responding to the negative review is appropriate, it is imperative to follow the professional and ethical guidelines for medical professionals outlined in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Under HIPAA guidelines, you cannot address the poster directly. Even using their name in your response when the reviewer has already identified themselves is prohibited.
Keep these tips in mind when responding to a review:
- Never identify a patient by name, even if they have already identified themselves.
- Never use any part of their medical history in your response, including to dispute claims.
- Avoid responding publicly. If you need to respond, do it privately if you can.
- Never respond off the cuff. Wait until you have calmed down before responding. Have someone else read your response, preferably an attorney, before posting.
- Do not republish a positive review on your website without the poster’s consent.
Include a Disclaimer on Your Profile/Website
While we recommend against responding to reviews, we recommend that you do include a disclaimer on your website and popular patient review sites. This disclaimer explains that you cannot discuss individual patient experiences publicly. A sample disclaimer is provided below.
We greatly value patient feedback and appreciate that online reviews are a useful tool that consumers use to educate themselves and select medical services.
However, please be aware that as medical professionals, unlike other businesses who may respond freely to online reviews, we must provide complete confidentiality to our patients.
That means we are prohibited from responding in any way that acknowledges whether someone has been in our care. If you have an issue that needs attention, please contact our office directly.”
You may choose to respond to a post by linking to your website’s disclaimer.
What If You Ignore Fake or Negative Reviews on RealSelf?
Some fake or negative reviews can be ignored. As discussed above, one bad review among many positive reviews does not often lead to serious damage to a reputation.
However, in some instances, ignoring fake or negative reviews can impact your professional reputation.
Negative reviews can breed other negative reviews. Negative review posters can create a dialogue among each other, leading to more and more reviews. Or if someone writes a fake review and does not get caught, they may keep writing more and more reviews.
In addition, some defamatory statements should not stay up. For instance, posts that say you have engaged in criminal or amoral behavior can deter others from becoming a patient and could lead to legal trouble.
We Can Help Your Business Protect Its Online Reputation
If you or your medical practice is the target of fake or negative patient reviews, we can help. We have helped over 2500 clients across 26 states and 5 countries. We have successfully removed over 50,000 pieces of unwanted internet content.
“We were under pressure to resolve an unfavorable Yelp review. Our Minc team was empathetic, efficient and got the job done quickly. We now have a lifeline when an on-line review becomes problematic. Many thanks to our wonderful team!”
Ellen Adams, June 13, 2021
At Minc Law, we have years of experience protecting individuals’ and businesses’ reputations online. Our reputation management professionals can help stop online attacks, remove negative online content, and improve your business’s online reputation.
If you are ready to get started with consumer review removal or online reputation management services, reach out to us by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a chat representative, or filling out our contact form.