NHS Choices expects online traffic of around half a million 'hits' to dental practice profiles every month from users looking to locate and compare practices in their area.

Given the increasingly litigious climate in the UK and the fact that consumers are more likely to tell others when dissatisfied rather than satisfied, it is natural for practices to have concerns about healthcare ratings websites.

Right to reply

Practices have the right to reply to NHS Choices comments through a dedicated NHS Choices moderation website. The DDU advises practices to use this wisely to acknowledge and respond to comments, and to sign-post users to their practice complaints procedure.

When drafting a reply, you must maintain your duty of confidentiality to the patient. It might also be appropriate to explain that this duty may prevent you from responding in detail online, and to invite the patient to contact the practice directly to discuss their complaint.

NHS Choices is not part of the official NHS Complaints Procedure. However, it may be advisable for practices to respond to written comments which express dissatisfaction, in accordance with section 5 of the GDC's Standards for the Dental Team.

Given the increasingly litigious climate in the UK, it is natural for practices to have concerns about healthcare ratings websites

Constructive response

Responding constructively to comments can often paint a practice in a favourable light, particularly if your response contains an apology for the dissatisfaction felt and a helpful way forward to resolve any concerns.

It is understandable to want to respond to criticism in a defensive or even counter-attacking way, particularly when under fire from abusive and potentially defamatory words. You should beware of posting a response in haste, though. It is generally better to acknowledge comments online, but take conversations offline.

Members should be mindful of standard 9.1.3 of the GDC's Standards for the Dental Team, which states: 'You should not publish anything that could affect patients' and the public's confidence in you, or the dental profession, in any public media, unless this is done as part of raising a concern.... In particular, you must not make personal, inaccurate or derogatory comments about patients or colleagues'.

Anonymity

NHS Choices users can either adopt a screen name or choose to remain anonymous. It may be an option to state politely in your online response to an anonymous posting that you would like to discuss the comments directly with the user, and invite them to get in touch with the practice.

Moderation - dos and don'ts

NHS Choices has a moderation process to ensure that contributions are 'constructive, relevant and civil'. Specific accusations of clinical negligence in which an individual is identified will not be published and contempt of court rules mean that users cannot make comments that could prejudice the outcome of a court case or GDC hearing.

Members have asked the DDU on occasion whether it is possible for them to report comments to the website's moderators with a view to having the comments removed. Although possible, this could risk inflaming the situation and prompt the user to re-direct their comments to other online forums, or even to external bodies such as the GDC.

Technology is now so sophisticated that it can detect when positive reviews are not genuine. Owners of businesses who have been tempted to counter bad reviews on Trip Advisor with their own good reviews to improve their star rating have been detected by the site, where every single review goes through a tracking system which maps their origin.

Risk management

NHS Choices promotes itself as the online 'front door' to the NHS but it has been criticised for providing NHS commissioners with access to patient complaints through the 'back door'. NHS Choices comments form a part of the information NHS commissioners often use to risk assess practices, and accordingly a flurry of negative comments could potentially result in local action being taken to explore any concerns. It is therefore also important for practices to maintain accurate information on their NHS Choices profile, such as opening hours and whether currently accepting fee-paying or exempt patients and children.

Key points

  • All practices listed on NHS Choices can reply to comments
  • Critical comments should be viewed as complaints
  • DDU members are advised to respond constructively
  • You can request that damaging or untrue comments are removed

This article was correct at publication on 29/04/2015. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.