Over the past few years, we've written about the controversial program from a group called "Medical Justice"
to get doctors to force their patients to sign over the copyright on any future reviews they might write on sites like Yelp or RateMyMD. The whole setup is both ethically and legally dubious, and a few weeks back some highly respected law professors, Eric Goldman and Jason Schultz, set up
the site DoctoredReviews.com
to help counter Medical Justice's efforts.
After I wrote about that, Medical Justice's PR staff was quick to contact me, claiming that their forms only covered "fictional or fraudulent reviews" and saying that the company's CEO would be more than happy to talk with me. I may have to take them up on that, because apparently the company was completely unwilling to talk to Tim Lee when he sought to do an excellent, well-researched and thorough takedown of Medical Justice's ethically dubious practices
, after being told he had to sign one of their forms in order to see a dentist. After debating it with the dentist's office manager, Lee instead went and found another dentist. The office manager made the same claim as Medical Justice, that this was only for fraudulent or fictional reviews, but that doesn't pass the common sense test. If the reviews were fraudulent of fictional, the dentist can use defamation laws to respond. Furthermore, if they're being written by non-patients, as the office manager alleged, then the agreements are meaningless, because the non-patients never signed them.
The real fear is the chilling effects created by such documents. Medical Justice may insist that the forms aren't intended for honest negative reviews, but patients don't know that. The forms certainly don't play that up. So anyone who signs the form may be scared off from actually responding -- even though the legality of handing over such a copyright is also legally dubious.
In the end, it does seem ethically questionable for doctors to require patients to sign such forms. As Schultz tells Lee:
"It's completely unethical for doctors to force their patients to sign away their rights in order to get medical care," he said. He pointed out that patients seeking treatment can be particularly vulnerable to coercion. Patients might be in acute pain or facing a life-threatening illness. Such patients are in no position to haggle over the minutia of copyright law.
Furthermore, Lee questions the claims of Medical Justice (and the dentist he visited) that in signing the Medical Justice forms, patients get greater privacy rights than required by HIPAA. Apparently, that may have been true in the past, but there's no clear evidence that it's true today:
And it gets worse. The "mutual privacy agreements" promise not to exploit a loophole in HIPAA that allows doctors to sell patient information for marketing purposes. But Schultz said that loophole was closed several years ago. Which means that recent versions of the Medical Justice agreement (including the one I was asked to sign) are lying to patients when they promise more protections than are offered under federal law. The Medical Justice website still claims that patients are "granted additional privacy protections" under the law, but doesn't elaborate or back up this claim.
Hopefully, more and more doctors will recognize that forcing patients to sign such forms only hurts them. Like Lee, I wouldn't use a doctor who uses Medical Justice, because it immediately suggests that they're more afraid of hiding bad reviews than they are in providing top notch service. Lee also points out that doctors are hardly helpless against negative reviews, and that they have opportunities to respond to them and help those patients, and in fact, that such responses can help build a stronger reputation for doctors. It really is truly unfortunate that so many doctors don't think through the obvious implications of using such forms.