NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

How Reliable Are Online Reviews of Psychotherapists?

In a New York Times editorial, The Wrong Type of Talk Therapy, Keely Kolmes, Ph.D., a psychologist in California, wrote about the problems with online reviews for mental health professionals--problems that occur for both clients and psychotherapists.  Another informative article about this topic was on, 2-Star Therapist? Why Online Reviews Give Psychiatrists Anxiety).

How Reliable Are Online Reviews of Psychotherapists?
How Are Online Reviews of Psychotherapists Different From Other Consumer Reviews?
As Dr. Kolmes points out in her editorial, reviewing your plumber or the wait staff at a restaurant is different from reviewing your psychotherapist.  As an example, she says that chances are if a patron at a restaurant had to wait a long time for a meal, there were probably other patrons who experienced the same thing.  

But this isn't necessarily the case for a client's relationship with a psychotherapist.  Not only is the therapeutic relationship unique and personal, but what might not work well for one client would work very well for another.  What might annoy one client would be considered wonderful by another.  

Online Reviews of Psychotherapists and Mental Health Confidentiality Laws
As Dr. Kolmes points out, whereas plumbers and restaurant owners can respond to online reviewers, psychotherapists cannot due to confidentiality laws.  Psychotherapists are ethically and legally bound to maintain clients' confidentiality, so they cannot respond to online reviews whether they are positive or negative--even when the client provides their full name as the reviewer.  

So, anyone who reads a review of a psychotherapist online, who might not know that a therapist is not allowed to respond to the reviewer, might think that the therapist isn't interested in responding.

Reliability of Online Reviews of Psychotherapists or Other Mental Health Practitioners
Generally, there is a negativity bias with most reviews.  People are more likely to write negative reviews than positive reviews, so what appears online often isn't reflective of what most clients seeing a particular psychotherapist think of the therapist.

Also, there's often a "back story" to these reviews that online reviewers don't provide, so people who are reading the reviews often don't have the full story.

For instance, if the client came for a consultation for a particular type of therapy and the therapist assessed that the client isn't a candidate for this therapy, the reviewer might not reveal that the therapist explained the reasons and offered other services or offered to provide another referral (see my article: EMDR is a Transformative Therapy For Trauma, But There Are a Few Exceptions).

This is also true of rave reviews, which can be an over-idealization of the psychotherapist, or represent an erotic transference (see my article:  Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference: Falling "In Love" With Your Psychotherapist).

Once again, the point is--whether the review is positive or negative--it is very subjective and personal.

How Online Reviews Are Harmful to Current and Prospective Clients
Many clients who post online reviews of psychotherapists use their names on the social media site without considering that their post is now available for everyone to see--including current and future employers.

While it's true, as Dr. Kolmes points out, that anyone can erase a review, there's no telling how many people have already seen the review.  An employer who is considering hiring a job candidate and who sees a ranting review might be concerned that this person might rant about them online too.  They might also be concerned that this person might lack good judgment or have little in the way of impulse control and, as a result, they shouldn't hire him or her. 

Prospective clients who rely on online reviews of psychotherapists--whether these reviews are positive or negative--are often getting a skewed view, as I mentioned earlier.

How Online Reviews Are Harmful For Psychotherapists
Whether or not a psychotherapist has a website, most private practice professionals are listed on online sites--whether they want to be listed or not.  These sites also encourage consumers to write reviews with no guidelines for how a review of a mental health professional is different from other reviews.   

A few negative reviews, whether they are justified or not, could ruin a psychotherapist's professional reputation, and the psychotherapist has little recourse since s/he cannot respond to the review due to confidentiality laws.

Medical Doctors and Dentists Are Also Getting Online Reviews and Taking Action
Within the last few months, I looked up the addresses for my eye doctor and my dentist, two professionals that I have seen for many years.  I consider them both to be top notch, dedicated professionals who go above and beyond for their patients.  This is why I was surprised and dismayed to see negative reviews for seemingly petty issues.  

In one case, a patient gave the doctor a negative review because she didn't like the way the doctor's biller interacted with her.  Based on what she wrote, it didn't seem like a major issue, but this patient gave the doctor the negative review.  

According to Dr. Kolmes, some doctors are taking action, based on advice from an organization called Medical Justice, by asking patients to sign an agreement that the doctor has control over any Web posting mentioning their practice.  Presumably, the idea is that it would allow the doctor to respond to a patient's negative review without violating confidentiality laws.  I'm not an attorney, but whether these agreements are legal is an open question in my mind.

Other Options to Online Reviews
Legal issues aside, I could foresee many problems if psychotherapists adapted the type of agreement that some doctors are using, and even more problems if psychotherapists actually responded to negative reviews, including damaging the therapeutic relationship.

I suppose one could argue that if the client is posting negative reviews--rather than speaking to the client directly--the therapeutic relationship might already be ruined.  But if a psychotherapist responds to an online review, it would surely be the final nail in the coffin for their relationship.  

I believe that it's a good idea for psychotherapists to ask clients for feedback from time to time to find out how they are feeling about the therapy.

If clients are encouraged to provide their therapist with ongoing feedback, it might reduce the likelihood that clients will feel they have no other option but to write a review online.  They would know that their therapist wants to hear and discuss the client's feedback.  

Beyond the momentary satisfaction that a client might get from writing a negative review, it usually doesn't accomplish much for the reviewer.  Many reviewers end up regretting their negative reviews when their anger has subsided.  It also doesn't resolve the problem between the client and the therapist. 

But if the client knows that s/he can discuss problems openly, it would open up an ongoing dialogue between the client and the therapist where, unlike an online review that the therapist might or might not see, they could actually work out any problems.  

This probably won't resolve problems for people who aren't clients, for instance--people who come for a one-time appointment or a consultation and never see the therapist again.  These people aren't clients until after the consultation when they decide to work together.  But for people who are actually clients, it might be a viable solution.

How to Communicate Your Dissatisfaction With Your Psychotherapist
Unfortunately, many people don't know how to communicate when something is bothering them about their psychotherapist or in their therapy (see my articles: Asking For What You Need in Therapy and  How to Talk to Your Psychotherapy About Something That's Bothering You in Therapy).

Some people, who feel too uncomfortable communicating anything negative to their therapists leave therapy prematurely (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).

But there's a real missed opportunity when people hold back communicating their dissatisfaction directly to the therapist or leave therapy without ever saying anything.  This is especially true for people who were unable to communicate anything negative when they were growing up or who were not believed.

While no one enjoys hearing negative comments, psychotherapists are trained not to take criticism personally.  Also, when the problem is resolved between the client and the therapist, this is often helpful to the work and helps improve the therapeutic relationship (see my article: Ruptures and Repairs in Psychotherapy).

Getting Recommendations For Psychotherapy From Medical Doctors or From Friends
Rather than relying on online reviews, which are often unreliable, asking their doctor or a trusted friend for a recommendation for a therapist would be better.  

Although it would not be a good idea to see the same psychotherapist that a close friend is currently seeing, you could contact a therapist that your friend saw in the past.  This is especially helpful if your friend saw this therapist over time (rather than relying on an online review from someone who saw a therapist once or twice).  Also, you know your friend and know his or her judgment about these issues.  You can also ask your friend questions.

You might also want to meet with a few psychotherapists until you find someone that you feel comfortable with over time (see my article below about how to choose a psychotherapist).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have been trying to resolve an emotional problem on your own without success, you could benefit from seeking help in psychotherapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to work through your unresolved problems so that you can lead a more fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.