Heartfelt with Dr Melissa Walton-ShirleyView all posts »
Should physicians "gag" their patients to avoid negative chat-room commentary?Jan 19, 2010 08:22 EST
I read with interest a recent piece by JoNel Aleccia on MSNBC.com about a new physician movement against negative patient commentary on public websites. One physician has asked his patients to routinely sign a "gag order," while others have asked their patients to "sign over copyright to future comments." The one-sided barrage of negativity against physicians is an ever-growing problem in the dissatisfying world of American healthcare, and chat rooms have become the one place a patient can go for both "therapy" and revenge.
Although there is a growing concern about chat-room commentary in the lay public, no one has seemed particularly concerned about comments against healthcare providers until now. I've certainly been a "victim" on occasion, with my efforts to promote a smoke-free city and my stance against the local option for alcohol sales in our community. When it first occurred, some of my patients became concerned, telling me, "You had better check to see what those idiots are saying about you." Unfortunately, I followed their advice and was devastated to see myself described as a "dictator" and an "alcoholic" who had "abandoned her patients" and "refused to come to the ER." Since I'm an avid teetotaler, the "alcoholic" description was ridiculous. I have no idea where the "ER" comment came from, as I frequent it multiple times per week, and as for the dictator complaint, that's purely a matter of opinion, and, well, "to each his own."
Out of curiosity, I contacted the local newspaper that hosted the site. They informed me that one poster had as many as five different identities and often had long conversations with himself to make the impression that multiple posters shared the same opinion. Not long after my inquiry, along with a local politician's wife and a local law-enforcement officer who were also victims of scathing commentary, they took down the site. It didn't take long, however, for it to pop up again with a different host. I finally followed the best advice ever given to me. It was an edict from my husband to "not ever get on that stupid website again." I haven't since March 2008 and I'm a much happier person.
Although it was an incredibly difficult ordeal for a weekend, I survived it because I have a wonderful support system and relatively good self-esteem. However, I can now better understand how someone with neither of those advantages can be devastated by anonymous comments. A recent landmark trial left a perpetrator with a mere slap on the wrist after her commentary caused the suicide death of a young teenager. That incident alone should tell us it's time to rein in the chat-room circus and gossip-fest that is growing hourly, not only in America but all over the world.
The solution is fairly obvious for all potential victims of negative cyber chat. Let us never muzzle our freedom of speech, but let us mandate that those who speak freely identify themselves. Written slander is prosecutable. If you are guilty of lying about a situation, propagating ill will with that lie, or spreading misinformation, you should be forced to keep your mouth shut and your fingers off the keyboard. If you do have legitimate concerns, you should lodge them in a reputable way by having a face-to-face discussion or reporting those concerns to a medical board. If you don't like your physician, get your records and find someone you do like, and don't attempt to destroy the doctor-patient relationship for others who are comfortable and happy. Hey, perhaps if we can implement tort reform, all those displaced malpractice lawyers could pick up the slack with cyber-harassment cases. It's a perfect solution!
A local physician's teenage daughter told the absolute lowest thing I've ever heard from a chat room to me. Her father died of a brain tumor after a harrowing year compounded by the loss of their mother several years previously. The comment she read not long after the funeral from an anonymous poster was that "he deserved it." That's the mentality we are dealing with on the majority of these websites. They are havens for the maladjusted, weak individual who lacks the courage to have a personal conversation. Let's demand their true identity be posted right along with their commentary. Let's let integrity "gag" all of us who might be tempted to propagate hate and ill will in exchange for a few moments of "therapy" or cheap entertainment in cyberspace. Let's see how different "freedom of speech" looks to us then.