A Saskatoon dental office breached patients' privacy while attempting to convince them to walk back their negative online reviews, the privacy commissioner says.
Dr. Wes Antosh, a dentist at Saskatoon Smiles Dental Studios, provided private information about two patients to a lawyer and social media director, according to a report by Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner Ronald Kruzeniski.
The Sept. 13 report outlines how the lawyer and director tried to convince the patients into removing their reviews by threatening to sue one and reach a legal settlement with the other.
Both people had contacted the privacy commissioner in January.
According to the report, both had been contacted by Kal Hammediah who, according to his employment letter referenced in the report, was responsible for managing "the online reputation of all practices within the Saskatoon Smiles Dental Group."
Antosh also told the commissioner that Hammediah was in charge of monitoring social media and reviews, though that wasn't outlined in Hammediah's employment letter, the report said.
During a phone call with one complainant, a recording of which was heard by Kruzeniski, Hammediah said he had "gone through all the notes with the lawyers" and the business could seek damages for the defamatory review.
The complainant wrote to the commissioner, "This person describes looking at information from my medical files from Saskatoon Smiles Dental Studios and looking at them for the sole reason of finding 'merit' for my Google review."
The other complainant received a letter from lawyer Gerald Perkins claiming to represent Antosh. In it, Perkins offered to reimburse the complainant's expenses on behalf of Antosh if the person signed a release and removed the comments made on Google, social media and elsewhere.
In the report, that complainant said they had received "subpar dental work."
The letter stipulated the complainant would have to pay Antosh $5,000 for breaching the agreement, but the complainant refused to sign, according to the report. However, in the complaint, the complainant said an agreement was reached with Saskatoon Smiles and Hammediah.
Kruzeniski said in the report that personal health information could be shared to benefit the patient, such as using phone numbers or emails to follow up with a patient or for additional referrals.
However, neither complainant benefited by being pressured into removing their negative reviews.
"Dr. Antosh's use of the complainant's personal health information for the purpose of online reputation/marketing is not authorized by [The Health Information Protection Act]," Kruzeniski wrote in his report.
"Accordingly, when it was used for such purposes, a privacy breach occurred."
Kruzeniski recommended in the month following the report that Antosh:
Apologize to the complainants.
Destroy personal health information from them and others that Hammediah may have.
Stop collecting and using personal health information for managing the business's online reputation and marketing.
Offer of payment not ethical: expert
While University of Saskatchewan marketing professor Marjorie Delbaere said she would not speak directly to the case, she said it's not common for businesses to offer compensation in exchange for removing a negative review.
"I think any kind of payment to get somebody to remove a negative review would not be an ethical business practice and I don't believe that most organizations would engage in something like that," Delbaere said.
She said that while reviews are not always positive, businesses ought to listen to those reviews and learn from them.
There are ways to remove defamatory or fake reviews, Delbaere said, noting sites like Google have their own processes of doing that.