A California pediatric dentist says he is being unfairly accused of mistreating a patient by an angry parent who created a Facebook page to attack him following the extraction of his young son's tooth.
The page, which attracted more than 200 members in its first 48 hours, illustrates the power of social media and its potential to do harm as well as good.
Chris Cook of Bakersfield, CA, created the "I Hate Dr. Dove of Bakersfield" page last week, claiming that pediatric dentist Edward Dove, DDS, extracted his 5-year-old son's tooth on August 22 without anesthesia. Cook also claims his son vomited, screamed, and urinated on himself while being held down by several assistants during the procedure.
Dr. Dove -- who is well-known in Bakersfield and has three other offices in California -- denied the allegations of improper treatment. He told DrBicuspid.com that he performed multiple pulpotomies and crowns on the same child last December, without complaints from the parents.
Cook brought his son back to Dr. Dove for additional treatment on August 22. Contrary to Cook's allegations, Dr. Dove said he gave the boy Vistaril and Versed orally via a medicine dropper, followed by a full carpule of 4% Septocaine via injection, prior to performing the extraction.
"I absolutely tested to ensure that he was numb," Dr. Dove told DrBicuspid.com. "I always do that for extractions. This was not a difficult extraction, and the kid was fine."
Cook could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Dove has no record of disciplinary actions, but he acknowledged that there have been complaints during his 23 years in practice. They have all been dismissed by the Dental Board of California, he said.
Dr. Dove denies the other accusations posted on Cook's Facebook page. And according to his office manager, Rachel Pufahl, only three of the people who posted complaints as of August 26 were actually patients of Dr. Dove.
One supporter, Adam Vinson, posted, "Dr. Dove is my children's dentist and does a fabulous job. This page is a joke," but he was quickly derided by other Facebook posters.
The dispute underscores how quickly consumers can mobilize online and the growing impact of such sites on dentists' reputations. It also shows how powerless dentists and other professionals can be in responding to online complaints.
Patients have been calling Dr. Dove about the Facebook posts, he said, but so far only one person has cancelled.
"I think my reputation will be hurt a little bit, but right now I just want to calm down," Dr. Dove said. "This guy is going ballistic, he's trying to smear me, and I'm getting bullied."
Jason Lipscomb, DDS, a private practice dentist in Virginia who lectures and blogs regularly about social media, warned that this situation could happen to any dentist.
— Edward Dove, DDS
"The way the marketplace is set up, anybody can set up a Facebook page and they're immediately empowered," he told DrBicuspid.com. "A lot of dentists have their head in the sand and think this can't happen to them. You have to have an online presence and do damage control immediately."
If a problem with a patient crops up, Dr. Lipscomb advises dentists to address it personally, noting that many complaints can be resolved through a phone call. Difficult situations can be turned around, to the dentist's benefit, if they are handled promptly and correctly, he noted.
"People who are complaining can be your biggest champion if they feel you've listened to them," he said. "But this guy obviously didn't think his concerns were being addressed."
Companies such as reputation.com and Smile Reminder provide tools to help practices manage their "webutations." This sort of service might be a good idea for Dr. Dove, Dr. Lipscomb said, given that the story is now being picked up by national news organizations.
"If he doesn't think this is going to affect his reputation, I think he's mistaken," he said. "His name will now automatically get hundreds of hits linked to the story."
Dr. Dove has been unable to respond to the criticisms directly on Facebook because members must be approved by the site's creator, and so far he has not received approval.
Dr. Dove's predicament is a "perfect storm," Dr. Lipscomb said. "You have to kind of become a public relations person. It's very tricky," he said. "It's very easy for that tipping point to go 100% the other way."
Defamation hard to prove
Edwin Zinman, DDS, JDS, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in dental law, says dentists have successfully filed defamation suits related to Internet content, but it can be hard to prove.
"One thing is fact, the other is opinion," he told DrBicuspid.com. "Some courts have found Internet content to be privileged commentary, and dentists have lost where it is ruled to be opinion, which patients are entitled to have."
In 2009, another California dentist filed a lawsuit against the parents of a young patient after the father posted a negative review on Yelp.com. Yvonne Wong, DDS, of Foster City claimed that the review defamed her by implying that she didn't inform the boy's parents about alternatives to the use of amalgam and nitrous oxide. Yelp also was named in the suit.
After a judge initially ruled that the case had sufficient legal merit to be tried, the case went to an appellate court, which found that consumers can post reviews of businesses on websites such as Yelp.com because they contribute to public discussion about controversial issues such as the use of dental amalgam.
While defamation claims against Yelp and the child's mother have been dismissed, the suit against the child's father is still pending in Santa Clara Superior Court. However, in May, Dr. Wong was ordered to pay the defendants more than $80,000 in attorney fees.
In Dr. Dove's case, an attorney could contact Cook and notify him that unless the page is removed, Dr. Dove could sue for defamation, Dr. Zinman said. He also advised Dr. Dove to talk to professional organizations such as the ADA, the California Dental Association, or the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
Both cases illustrate the power of social media and the impact it can have on small businesses.
"He [Dr. Dove] probably had no idea it would come to this," Dr. Lipscomb said. "I know he's doing everything in his power to do the right thing, but he's just being railroaded."