They called him a maniac and much worse, and said he gives patients “the creeps.” They accused him of over prescribing drugs, misdiagnosing ailments and incompetence. And they alleged that his Tokyo counseling center scams clients out of money.
Douglas Berger, a Lake Worth psychiatrist practicing in Japan, has no idea who posted the barrage of critical comments about him to the social news website, Reddit.com, over the past six months. But he intends to find out.
In September, Berger sued Reddit and the anonymous users who trashed him online, collectively identified as “John Doe” in the lawsuit, for defamation and libel in Palm Beach Circuit Court. Berger could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Aaron Winc of Ohio, refused to speak about the case.
In the lawsuit, Berger acknowledges that Reddit has no liability. But he hopes to use the discovery process to unmask the names and addresses of the individuals behind the negative comments.
Reddit users with anonymous handles, such as “ShiningRedDwarf” and “Sendofftomars,” have posted more than 165 comments about Berger in the past six months, most of them negative.
Berger’s lawsuit says that the barrage of insults and accusations have caused him to lose income and “countless employment opportunities.” He’s asking the court to force Reddit to remove the comments from the website, and for search engine providers including Google and Yahoo to remove the postings from their search results.
Once he has identified the anonymous posters, Berger’s lawsuit says, he will add them to the case.
But it’s not clear that Berger has a case, said Jeffrey Segal, a neurosurgeon and lawyer who runs a medical malpractice consulting firm, Medical Justice, in North Carolina.
“It’s just an opinion, and opinion is protected speech,” he said.
And even if Berger were to prevail, Segal said, the legal costs could be significant and the psychiatrist may still damage what he’s trying most to protect, his professional reputation.
Federal privacy laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or HIPAA, prohibit doctors from sharing their patients’ medical information without consent, making it difficult for physicians to respond online even when they know who is posting the comment, Segal said.
Still, he said, doctors may be better off using the same online review platforms as their critics, rather than the courts, to protect their reputations.
“Reviews are everywhere,” he said. “Everybody relies on them, and healthcare… is not going to be any exception.”
He said what bothers physicians most about online reviews is that their reputation can be defined a few bad comments online.
“The solution is simple,” Segal said, “more reviews.”