Burned by negative reviews, some health providers are casting their patients’ privacy aside and sharing intimate details online as they try to rebut criticism.

In the course of these arguments – which have spilled out publicly on ratings sites like Yelp – doctors, dentists, chiropractors and massage therapists, among others, have divulged details of patients’ diagnoses, treatments and idiosyncrasies.

One Washington state dentist turned the tables on a patient who blamed him for the loss of a molar: “Due to your clenching and grinding habit, this is not the first molar tooth you have lost due to a fractured root,” he wrote. “This tooth is no different.”

In California, a chiropractor pushed back against a mother’s claims that he misdiagnosed her daughter with scoliosis. “You brought your daughter in for the exam in early March 2014,” he wrote. “The exam identified one or more of the signs I mentioned above for scoliosis. I absolutely recommended an x-ray to determine if this condition existed; this x-ray was at no additional cost to you.”

And a California dentist scolded a patient who accused him of misdiagnosing her. “I looked very closely at your radiographs and it was obvious that you have cavities and gum disease that your other dentist has overlooked. … You can live in a world of denial and simply believe what you want to hear from your other dentist or make an educated and informed decision.”

RATED LIKE RESTAURANTS

Health professionals are adapting to a harsh reality in which consumers rate them on sites like Yelp, Vitals and RateMDs much as they do restaurants, hotels and spas.

The vast majority of reviews are positive. But in trying to respond to negative ones, some providers appear to be violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal patient privacy law known as HIPAA. The law forbids them from disclosing any patient health information without permission.

Yelp has given ProPublica unprecedented access to its trove of public reviews – more than 1.7 million in all – allowing searches by keyword. In dozens of instances, responses to complaints about medical care turned into disputes over patient privacy.

The patients affected say they’ve been doubly injured – first by poor service or care and then by the disclosure of information they considered private.

The shock of exposure can be effective, prompting patients to back off.

“I posted a negative review” on Yelp, a client of a California dentist wrote in 2013. “After that, she posted a response with details that included my personal dental information. … I removed my review to protect my medical privacy.”

The consumer complained to the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which enforces HIPAA. The office warned the dentist about posting personal information in response to Yelp reviews. It is currently investigating a New York dentist for divulging personal information about a patient who complained about her care, according to a letter reviewed by ProPublica.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW

Health providers have tried a host of ways to try to combat negative reviews. Some have sued their patients, attracting a torrent of attention but scoring few, if any, legal successes. Others have begged patients to remove their complaints.

Jeffrey Segal, a onetime critic of review sites, now says doctors need to embrace them. Beginning in 2007, Segal’s company, Medical Justice, crafted contracts that health providers could give to patients asking them to sign over the copyright to any reviews, which allowed providers to demand that negative ones be removed. But after a lawsuit, Medical Justice stopped recommending the contracts in 2011.

Segal said he has come to believe reviews are valuable and that providers should encourage patients who are satisfied to post positive reviews and should respond – carefully – to negative ones.

“For doctors who get bent out of shape to get rid of negative reviews, it’s a denominator problem,” he said. “If they only have three reviews and two are negative, the denominator is the problem. … If you can figure out a way to cultivate reviews from hundreds of patients rather than a few patients, the problem is solved.”