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Would you let your doctor own what you say online?

Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo (L), Chief of General Internal Medicine University of Miami, sits with Juan Gonzalez as he conducts a checkup on him at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.

For doctors, a good reputation is essential to a successful business. If patients think well of their doctor, they will recommend that doctor to friends, relatives, co-workers. If something goes wrong and word gets around, it can get awfully difficult to keep a practice going. We live in a world where spreading the word has never been easier. Thanks to a ton of review sites online, it's easier than ever to share your opinions on restaurants, hotels, vacation spots, and, yes, doctors and dentists and surgeons.

But many medical offices have been demanding control over what gets said about them by patients. In recent years, they have begun having patients sign what they call "privacy agreements," stipulating that the doctor owns the copyright to any online comments the patient makes about him or her. If the doctor finds the patient's comments to be untrue or slanderous, says the agreement, the doctor as content owner can demand it be removed. Under this agreement, the doctor would essentially have the right to demand anything be taken down. 

A class-action lawsuit has just been filed by a patient against a New York dentist who demanded negative comments from that patient be taken off the web. The dentist's office even billed the patient $100 for each day the comments stayed online.

And that's not the only challenge these agreements are facing. The Center for Democracy and Technology is taking action against Medical Justice, a company that provides these agreements to medical offices. "We filed a complaint with Federal Trade Commission saying that these sort of contracts are clearly unenforceable under contract law," says Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "The doctors are going to review sites and asserting false copyright claims and potentially if a site is scared of a potential lawsuit, they'll take down valid criticisms of doctors and we think that's a deceptive and unfair practice under the law. There's a long history of the law in this country saying that you can't tell someone that they can't speak truthful things. Courts have always said that those sorts of contracts are invalid, so they're effectively just scaring doctors and patients into not reviewing doctors online."

Brookman says there are already avenues that doctors can take if they feel they are being lied about online.

Jeffrey Segal is CEO of Medical Justice and says, "We disagree with the substance of the complaint. We think that the agreements have been presented as a means to an end to try and promote ratings of doctors, not to stifle ratings of doctors. And we think that historically, doctors have done a pretty good job of disciplining themselves. But again, these agreements have been a means to an end, a way where ultimately patients will be able to get good, valid information about their doctor. If you pick restaurant based on a review and you get it wrong, there are no long-term consequences. If you pick a doctor based on two or three reviews and you get it wrong, you could die. We think it really matters. It's important that patients have good, honest, reliable information."

Nonetheless, complaints about those agreements have mounted. As those complaints find their way to court rooms and government agencies, Segal now says it's time to make a change. His company is backing off the agreements and will discontinue their use. "We're going to use this as an opportunity to eliminate some of the confusion and retire these agreements," he says. "And move forward straight with the E-Merit program whereby patients are given a tablet in a waiting room and they're able to input their commentary and feedback and it goes up to a number of reputable rating sites."

Segal says the E-Merit system does not give the doctors copyright power over online comments. He says notices will go out to doctor's offices soon recommending they stop the agreement system. Whether those offices do so is up to the doctors.

Also in this program, the Ray Bradbury classic "Fahrenheit 451" is now available as an e-book, despite Bradbury's longtime loathing of the format.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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