A Winnipeg dental clinic is suing one of its patients for defamation, alleging she falsely accused staff of using dirty instruments in an online review that ramped up fears of COVID-19.
"It’s extremely damaging," said Dr. Dheeraj Mittal, who confirmed staff at his three Greenwoods Dental Centre locations have fielded concerned calls from patients since the review and several follow-ups were posted on the business’s Facebook page last month.
"I don’t know why somebody would even say that. This is going to scare not only new patients, but also existing patients."
A lawsuit filed last week alleges the patient posted a review on the dental centre’s Facebook page last month claiming she developed a serious infection after staff used "dirty instruments" during a root canal and had to be hospitalized.
"And now I worry about covid (sic)," the woman wrote.
Later that same day, the woman edited the post to include "COVID ALERT!!!!" at the top of the message.
Another edit to the post that same day went into greater detail and alleged the clinic refused to provide her with antibiotics. "My personal experience was excruciating and horrible," the woman wrote. "I am now VERY worried about also contracting COVID. It is my personal opinion you should attend elsewhere — anywhere!"
A similar review was posted on Google Reviews the following day, says the lawsuit.
"Because of the pandemic, people are already scared about going anywhere," Mittal said Monday. "And now when they see this kind of review, COVID-19 alert on social media, if it was me as a patient going somewhere and I had a choice, I would not go to this place."
Bacterial infections can be a complication of root canals, Mittal said.
"But COVID-19, everybody knows it’s a virus, it’s not bacterial," he said. "So you cannot have a gum or a tooth viral infection. It’s totally different from scaring someone with a COVID alert."
The woman has been a Greenwoods patient "on and off" since 2014, Mittal said.
"So obviously she has been here and knows we don’t do that kind of work and she knows that we don’t use dirty instruments — otherwise why would she keep coming to Greenwoods," he said.
Mittal said it’s difficult to gauge what impact the reviews may have had on patient traffic.
"I think rather than cancelling they are probably not booking and going somewhere else," he said.
Mittal said he complained to Facebook and Google, which removed some of the offending posts, but some still remain.
Mittal is seeking an injunction ordering the woman and a friend who posted a supporting message online to remove the remaining posts and be barred from publishing any further "defamatory statements" about the dental clinics.
The defamatory posts "have undermined (Greenwoods') professional reputation and affected the reputation of its business," the lawsuit alleges.
Online reviews can be "very impactful," depending on the volume of reviews and the range in opinions or ratings, said Fang Wan, a marketing professor with the Asper School of Business.
"People are more interested in the collective characteristic," with the number of reviews and a good average rating being a better indicator of legitimacy than a particularly bad review, Wan said.
"If everyone is saying great things about this dentist, having one negative one will probably be washed away by the positive reviews," she said.
Where service industry providers at one time used customer surveys to gauge their performance, online reviews have shifted the balance of power to consumers, Wan said.
"This is really how you figure out where to go," she said. "The reviews are really dominating choices. If you don’t have any experience before, ‘Where do I go?’ is highly dependent on what other people say about it… It’s an irreversible trend."
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.