MAY 2008


Doc seeks $12 million for
RateMDs comments

Lawsuit says "malicious" ratings are
fabricated, distressing

RateMDs co-founder John Swapceinski says the lawsuit doesn't worry him
Photo credit: Don Feria

"This doctor prescribed me an antibiotic that causes birth defects after I clearly told him I was 4 months pregnant!! Apparently he made a 'mistake.'" — Posted on on October 1, 2007

"I found Dr Foda to ignore problems until drastic measures were required. Had to call numerous times to get an appointment. Felt that Dr Foda did not do required follow up in a timely manner. Did not inform patients of what he did in the OR [such as] remove tumours. Would have died if not for another [doctor]." — Posted on on May 26, 2007

The doctor in both these comments, published on the popular US-based doctor rating website RateMDs, is Edmonton-area urologist Mohamed Foda (overall rating: 3.2 out of five). On March 31, he decided to do something about the comments, which he claims are "malicious" fakes designed to ruin him: he filed a massive lawsuit against the anonymous authors of the comments, for a total of $12 million in damages, reported the Edmonton Sun recently.

John Swapceinski, the co-founder and administrator of RateMDs, isn't worried that Dr Foda's claim will grow into anything more than a threat. And he typically ignores threats. "We get threats pretty much every week, and we get letters from lawyers about once a month — to cease and desist, to remove a client's name — but we don't comply." Surprisingly, RateMDs has never been sued before, though Mr Swapceinski says he will cooperate with the court if he's subpoenaed to release identifying information about Dr Foda's anonymous patients.

In fact, says Mr Swapceinski, the comments about Dr Foda may be entirely true. "They're only libellous if they're not true and I don't know if they're true or not. They don't seem to me to be outrageous," he says. "If we see something that is outrageous, that can't be possibly true, then we take it down. Otherwise, I would hate to have a doctor who's doing a lot of bad things and I start taking down ratings because I don't think they're true but they are. When you look at the newspaper, there are articles about doctors engaging in completely outrageous behaviour that couldn't be true, but it is."

As Mr Swapceinski sees it, the website provides a public service, allowing people to share information. He's quick to bring up the US Constitution's First Amendment right to freedom of speech. But he admits that a lie is a lie. "I can understand it," he says of Dr Foda's lawsuit. "If the comments aren't true he should file suit."

If the price tag Dr Foda's placed on his dignity strikes you as high, that's because it is. So too, however, is the price of internet libel. "Foda claims the defamatory comments have caused irreparable harm to his reputation and medical practice and caused him emotional distress and anxiety," the Sun wrote. (Dr Foda did not return multiple requests for comment from NRM.)

The huge $12 million sum is a reflection of the importance that anonymous internet ratings have acquired in 21st century Canada.

That Dr Foda's claim is without precedent only serves to highlight most physicians' ignorance — willful or otherwise — of the degree to which the internet has changed how the public perceives physicians.

Over 40,000 Canadian physicians — fully two-thirds of the total figure — are now rated.



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