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ConsumerWatch: Doctors Pursue Legal Remedy For Bad Reviews

BERKELEY (CBS 5) - Next time you go to a new doctor, you could be asked to sign a new kind of agreement before heading into the exam room. It's a document that could place limits on what you say publicly about the doctor once you leave the office. Critics call them "gag orders."

The agreements go by a variety of names including Anti-Review contracts and Mutual Agreements to Maintain Privacy. Medical Justice, a company in North Carolina, markets its version of the form to doctors as part of an "anti-defamation" protection plan. Under the terms, patients give their doctors the copyright to anything the patient writes or says about the doctor on the web or in print.

"What this supposedly does, is anytime you write a review on line, the doctor 'owns' it, and has the right to take it down," explained Jason Schultz, Director of the Samuelson Law and Technology Clinic at U.C. Berkeley School of Law, and a critic of the agreements.

Schultz said patients often feel pressured to sign the forms.

"They usually get handed out in a stack of forms, when you're in a very vulnerable and costly position," said Schultz.

Medical Justice contends the forms are necessary to protect doctors from anonymous and unjustified on-line reviews that can damage a doctor's reputation.

"It's used and intended for only egregious postings," said Shane Stadler of Medical Justice.

Stadler told CBS 5 ConsumerWatch they're needed because doctors "have no recourse" when bad reviews appear, because doctors are bound by privacy laws that forbid them from responding directly to patients complaints on-line.

Schultz said there are a variety of ways doctors can respond to negative on-line reviews without compromising patients' privacy.

"The doctor can respond by saying 'I can't talk about a particular case, but I can tell you I'm up on all the latest journals," Schultz explained. "Most people don't need to know the details of a particular interaction."

The website is responding to the issue with a Wall of Shame. When the site hears from patients who say they've been asked to sign one of the contracts, the site puts the doctor's name on the list.

(Copyright 2011 by CBSSan Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)

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