The Cost of Ignoring the Streisand Effect

April 1, 2013

Streisand EffectThis is good: Boston neurosurgeon Sagun Tuli reportedly sued the surviving spouse of a patient over a negative blog post.  Apparently part of the action was grounded in the fact that the less-than-flattering commentary appeared on the first page of Google when searching the doctor’s name.

Doctors looking on should take away a few things:

You can’t control the conversation.  You can start it, join it, shape it, or be cross about it.  But you can’t control public dialog.

If negative stuff about you ranks high on Google, you’re not working hard enough on your footprint.  You can create your story or you can let other people create it for you.  Spend your time creating amazing stuff or creating the stuff of amazing stories.  It will always overshadow the drivel.

More people read Boston Globe feature articles than patient blogs.  Even more people read blog posts, comments, tweets and Facebook remarks about Boston Globe feature articles than patient blogs.

We draw more attention to a story when we work to have it removed.  Even when we have a strong legal case, the Streisand effect should always be considered before taking public action against an individual.  This is especially true when the individual recently lost a loved one to cancer.

While I never saw the original patient post, I’m not sure that I need to.  I suspect that the threat to set the record straight had more of an impact the career of this doctor than the isolated view of any one patient.

Image via Wikipedia.


ARCpoint Labs of Greenville NC April 2, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Granted, I don’t know the story behind this particular case, but a physician should not sue a patient or family member for putting their opinion of this person as a physician out there for the world to read. The public has a right to know what they may be getting themselves into when they are thinking about using a particular doctor.

Cheryl Handy April 2, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I am a fan of “sorry works” and apology legislation. (For me, a mere expression of concern would have sufficed.) But, the legislation is problematic if the patient still is allowed to blog after an apology.

I agree that physicians should not fight with a disgruntled patient or family over the Internet. It’s pointless. The physician is bound by privacy issues and only draws attention to themselves by suing the patient. But, ultimately, the entire issue comes down to the patient-physician relationship. As physician time becomes more precious and paraprofessionals take the place of the physician in many cases, the trust between physician and patient becomes frayed.

The patient feels (rightly or not) distanced from the physician. I’ve said it many times – a patient will never sue or “speak” badly about a physician he or she likes. Before a doc starts making an Internet footprint for him or herself, the physician must focus on making sure the *real* communication system in the medical practice is solid and working well.

Tribune Reader April 6, 2013 at 3:19 am

ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune, January 30, 2013

[ Dennis Laurion fired off his screed on a few rate-your-doctor websites in April 2010, along with some letters about what he saw as poor bedside manner by his father's neurologist. He expected at most what he calls a "non-apology apology. I really thought I'd receive something within a few days along the lines of 'I'm sorry you thought I was rude, that was not my intent.' I certainly did not expect to be sued."

He was. Dr. David McKee's defamation lawsuit was the beginning of a four-year legal battle that ended Wednesday when the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the doctor had no legal claim against Laurion because there was no proof that his comments were false or were capable of harming the doctor's reputation.

The unanimous ruling reverses an earlier Appeals Court decision and brings to an end the closely watched case that brought to the forefront a First Amendment debate over the limits of free speech online.

It's a frustrating end for McKee, 51, who said he's spent at least $50,000 in legal fees and another $11,000 to clear his name online after the story went viral, resulting in hundreds more negative postings about him -- likely from people who never met him. He hasn't ruled out a second lawsuit stemming from those posts.

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

The lawsuit followed the hospitalization of Laurion's father, Kenneth, for a hemorrhagic stroke at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. Laurion, his mother and his wife were also in the room when McKee examined the father and made the statements that Laurion interpreted as rude. After his father was discharged, he wrote the reviews and sent the letters.

On at least two sites, Laurion wrote that McKee said that "44 percent of hemorrhagic strokes die within 30 days. I guess this is the better option," and that "It doesn't matter that the patient's gown did not cover his backside."

Laurion also wrote: "When I mentioned Dr. McKee's name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, 'Dr. McKee is a real tool!'"

Writing the opinion, Justice Alan Page noted that McKee acknowledged that the gist of some of the statements were true, even if they were misinterpreted. Page added that the "tool" statements also didn't pass the test of defaming McKee's character. He dismissed an argument by McKee's attorney, Marshall Tanick, that the "tool" comment was fabricated by Laurion and that the nurse never existed. Whether it was fabricated or not was irrelevant, the court ruled. "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," Page wrote.

Tanick said the ruling could present a slippery slope. "This decision gives individuals a license to make derogatory and disparaging statements about doctors, professionals and really anyone for that matter on the Internet without much recourse," he said.

Jane Kirtley disagreed. The professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism said the ruling stems from "an elementary principle of libel law. I understand the rhetoric, but this is not a blank check for people to make false factual statements," she said. "Rather, it's an endorsement that statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment." ]
Full article

Linda Brodsky April 7, 2013 at 7:13 am

Most doctors I know (and this includes Dr. Tuli who I know well), work very hard for their patients. We worry about them when we are”off call” and outcomes which are not perfect bother us all, especially us surgeons.
When someone loses a loved one to a terrible disease, and especially when heroic measures are taken, it is very, very tough on everyone. Blaming the doctor is natural, but should not be a public process. That is slanderous.
Most doctors, especially neurosurgeons, don’t have time to “manage” their on-line reputation. Most have work weeks which are enormously draining. If you are up all night with a patient and have to work the next day, it takes many days to recoup.
It’s time to stop this diarrhea of the mouth about anyone, including doctors, that has infected our public discourse. Words are harmful when misused, and I would be shocked if Dr. Tuli didn’t give everything good in her to try to help this patient.
As our world becomes more polarized, we will see more of this happening. Apologies or not, bad things happen to patients and many times there is no one to fault.

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