Why Online Patient Reviews Matter to Your Practice
All doctors understand the role that reputation plays in attracting new patients to their practices. But not all doctors realize today’s impact of online sites that invite patient reviews. Love them or hate them, these sites are here to stay and they are influencing how new patients conduct a physician search.
Invigo Media, an inbound marketing company that specializes in medical-based clientele, reports that online patient reviews are continuing to increase. Some surveys find that as many as 84% of their participants use online patient reviews when researching physicians. Of these, 47% reported that they would choose an out-of-network provider who has comparable qualifications over an in-network one if the reviews of the out-of-network provider were more favorable.
The real-world impact of online patient reviews won’t be abating any time soon.
So doctors everywhere need to take a proactive stance when it comes to managing their reputations on the internet. To do this an understanding of how, when, and where patient reviews are used is essential. With that in mind, let’s take a look ways you can manage your reputation and make online patient reviews work for you instead of against you.
Some Basic Things to Understand About Online Patient Reviews
Patient reviews are increasingly used by people doing a physician search. When it comes to conducting that search, quality of care is cited as among the most important metrics. Also at the top of the list is patient experience, followed by the doctor’s background.
Other aspects looked for in patient reviews related to a physician search are friendliness of staff, ease of scheduling, any billing or payment issues, and wait times.
Why and How Your Business and Reputation are Affected by Online Patient Reviews
In 2012, the Journal of American Medicine Association (JAMA) published the findings of a survey that conducted an interview of 2,137 adults. One-third of the participants stated that they sought out or avoided doctors based on the online ratings they received. A Pew Research Center study conducted more recently indicated that 72% of all internet users in the United States went online seeking health and physician information. Of these, 30% did so to specifically look at online patient reviews.
The vast majority of these online ratings sites post patient reviews with little or no oversight. Virtually anyone can write anything with near anonymity. Over 700,000 physicians are listed on a single site alone called Vitals.com, making it the largest site for patient reviews. It attracts over 13 million visitors per month.
But Vitals.com only scratches the surface of available online sites that post patient reviews.
Other prominent sites are ZocDoc, RateMDs, and Yelp. These and many more maintain large directories of provider information. With so few checks and balances in place, and disgruntled patients protected by anonymity, it’s easy to see how a single strongly negative review can trigger an all-out boycott of a physician’s practice.
Such anonymity is an effective shield for patients with strong grudges. They can wreak havoc by posting fraudulent or exaggerated claims. Those with particular internet savvy can go online and impersonate the practice they have targeted.
Those with a grasp of how search engine optimization (SEO) works can manipulate the system to make their patient reviews appear in the top search results for the doctor or practice they have targeted.
In the vast majority of cases, physicians are helpless to defend themselves against negative patient reviews. This is because HIPAA compliance forbids physicians from discussing details of any interaction with a patient within the context of a public forum. This severely limits a physician’s ability to publicly counter negative patient reviews.
Some practices have been so badly damaged by negative online patient reviews that the physicians have opened lawsuits against the people leaving the reviews. And while this is sometimes successful, it can be an exceptionally slippery slope.
Lawsuits against reviewers can be prohibitively expensive, especially if your practice’s insurance will not cover it.
Additionally, the process can be agonizingly long and -in most cases- the suits are lost. Then there is the sour cherry that tops this sludge sundae: the physician often gains more negative press in the process.
This may all seem to indicate that successfully fighting negative patient reviews is all but impossible. But there are, in fact, avenues that are open to physicians. Practicing due diligence and being proactive are the keys. And understanding the psychology that drives patient reviews is the best place to start.
Why Bad Patient Reviews Happen
So what are the primary things that trigger negative patient reviews? And why are people in general more likely to write hostile reviews than positive ones? Negative patient reviews are motivated by a number of very basic desires. These include:
- Wanting to vindicate a perceived “wrong” that has been done
- The honest desire to forewarn others or to be of help
- Feeling that a complaint or concern has not been properly addressed or rectified
- Wanting to validate other negative patient reviews (hopping on the bandwagon of a popular sentiment)
Consider your own reviewer’s habits. For example, are you more motivated to leave a Yelp review for a restaurant where you enjoyed a perfectly pleasant but normal meal, or more likely to write a scathing one about an especially bad experience there?
In the context of medical care, the sites where people leave patient reviews are often the third party that “listens to them.”
Leana Wen, M.D. is the director of patient-centered care research at George Washington University and the author of When Doctors Don’t Listen. She believes negative patient reviews, especially the outsized hostile kind, can be significantly reduced when doctors invest the time to open a dialogue with patients.
Dr Wen states that physician inattentiveness instills a sense of disenfranchisement in patients. She goes on to say that our medical education model is lacking in focus when it comes to teaching physicians how to fully communicate with patients.
All too often, patients leave their doctors feeling confused about a diagnosis and what’s going on with their own body.
Dr. Wen states that approximately 80% of all medical diagnoses are derived by simply talking with patients. Yet many physicians aren’t even aware that their patients leave them feeling poorly informed and unhappy.
When this happens, many people who feel they’ve had a mediocre or negative experience leave the office and do a physician search online. When they find negative patient reviews for the doctor they’ve just visited, they have an “a-ha!” moment. This perpetuates even more negativity about their experience, regardless of the validity of the reveiws they are reading. Now they’re likely to add to the momentum of these patient reviews by adding their own.
How To Successfully Counter Negative Patient Reviews
Whether you like it or not, today’s ever-on all-access world requires proactive reputation management to minimize the potential snowball effect of negative patient reviews. What is the most effective means of doing this? In a nutshell, increase your volume of positive patient reviews.
This promotes a review environment in which a patient feeling unhappy with a recent experience is more likely to think of that experience as a “one-off” instead of part of a trend for the physician in question. This, in turn, can tamp down the bandwagon mentality that a string of unverified negative reviews can trigger.
In other words, it’s far easier to dilute a salty glass of water by adding more clean water than to try to remove the salt altogether.
Now let’s turn our attention to which online review sites will benefit your practice most.
Steering Your Patients to the Most Effective Review Sites
Having your staff ask for online patient reviews should have focus. While it’s true that the “review site du jour” changes over time, there are two primary keys to getting your positive patient reviews seen by the largest audiences:
- Suggest specific review sites to your patients.
- Consider what devices are being used to conduct a physician search. Phone, tablet, or computer?
When someone is doing a search via phone or tablet, patient reviews are often pulled from Google+ or Yelp. On computer these are also regularly accessed, but rateMDs, Vitals, and Healthgrades also come into significant play when people are doing a specific physician search.
Don’t overwhelm your patients with review site choices.
You’ll want to give people choices when it comes to places to post patient reviews, but you don’t want to offer a virtual laundry list, either. Too many choices means running the risk of patients not posting at all. So focus your requests by suggesting one to two primary mobile device review sites along with one to two primary physician search sites.
Make it easy for people to go to your preferred sites for patient reviews by including a postcard that provides links when handing them office visit receipt. You can also be sure to add the links to any emails the patient receives.
It’s important to know where NOT to steer patients to post reviews, too.
It may be tempting to use sites like ZocDoc or Demandforce, where you can manage the message by choosing which reviews will appear online. But that lays the trap to indulge in echo chamber mentality. Physician search sites like these have very weak page rankings on the popular search engines like Google, Bing, or Edge.
Be proactive and respond to negative reviews. But keep it compliant!
Increasing positive patient reviews is only one aspect of countering the effects of negative ones. It’s also important to respond online to those who have posted complaints. Surveys show that approximately 60% of respondents state that when a doctor responds to negative patient reviews in a thoughtful manner, it has a positive impact on opinion.
Trading insults with someone who has posted a negative review may feel gratifying, but doing so can have a ripple effect that increases hostile patient reviews rather than combats them. So…how do you douse the fire of a negative review before it spreads, yet also remain HIPPA compliant? Below are a few basic guidelines.
1. Keep your head.
Refrain from replying until you’ve had a chance to cool down. You want to appear as objective as possible when replying to a negative review. Be careful to not violate HIPPA. Regardless of how much personal information the reviewer may choose to reveal, you need to keep your replies generic and courteous.
Remember, patient reviews on physician search sites and other online venues are publicly viewed. You’re not only responding to the disgruntled patient, you’re addressing everyone who is reading the exchange.
2. Whenever possible, respond privately.
If the patient has revealed his/her full name, consider calling or emailing privately. Let the patient know that you take all patient reviews to heart and want to address his/her concerns.
Listen to/read thoroughly the patient’s reply then consider what is in your power to resolve the situation. To demonstrate that you have fully grasped the patient’s concerns, repeat the complaint(s) back to him/her. Above all, always communicate sympathy.
3. Never ever ignore negative patient reviews.
Whether you have the information needed to contact the patients privately or not, you should always respond to negative patient reviews. Even if your positive reviews well exceed the hostile ones, making a civil and professional attempt to resolve the patient’s issue is strongly recommended.
Remember the point made in the first guideline above: You’re not just responding to the unhappy patient. By the very nature of the review’s forum, you are effectively addressing everyone who reads the exchange.
Using Social Media Sites
It’s also important in this ever-connected age to maintain social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Posting helpful content on these sites such as informative articles, news about your practice, general reminders about the importance of regular annual check-ups, and more are all valuable ways to encourage positive patient reviews and comments.
Boosting Positive Patient Reviews Through Referrals
All of the above is not to say that a reputation grounded in excellence isn’t crucial. Of course, it is. Acknowledgement by your peers regarding your high standards and expertise will always play a critical role in the securing of referrals and helping to ensure a steady stream of new patients.
However, in today’s increasingly competitive medical environment, the reality is that referrals are no longer based on clinical skill alone. Take the following into consideration:
- Availability beats clinical expertise virtually every time for a patient. Patients’ daily lives are-and have been for decades now- as densely packed as any physician’s. Improving availability and minimizing wait times results in satisfied patients who are far more inclined to return, as well as go out of their way to post positive patient reviews.
- Practicing referral reciprocity on your part promotes a virtuous cycle of more patient referrals from your colleagues.
- Cultivating personal relationships among peers regularly increases referrals.
- Specialists who are willing to do tests and procedures upon request are far more likely to see a positive bump in referrals.
- Patients who are happy with a doctor’s overall performance and manner frequently go out of their way to recommend that doctor or his/her practice.
These referral-related examples can have a significant impact on online patient reviews.
Whether a prospective new patient is doing a physician search because they want “the best,” or because they saw a doctor being interviewed on the local news discussing medical issues that pertain to them, or because they are discouraged with their current doctor, the physician with superior online reviews and an overall solid presence is all but guaranteed to win out every time.
So don’t take referrals for granted. Maximize their worth by turning them into positive patient reviews.
Consider Using an Integrated Digital Management Agency to Handle Manage Your Online Presence
Some medical practices may have the staff-power to keep their online presence updated, appropriately prolific, and manage patient reviews and comments for optimal effect. But the majority now turn to agencies that specialize in full online management of a practice’s website, review sites, and social pages.
There are agencies that specialize in various professions and industries, including the medical fields. They manage a practice’s website and curate its online presence, generate web content, integrate the practice’s social media pages with its site, monitor the increase or decrease in independent sites that focus on patient reviews and physician searches, and more.
This results in accurate data collection, allowing for effective and – equally important- authentic monitoring of the impact a medical office’s online presence has on its profit margin. Indeed, a quality integrated digital management agency can help boost that profit margin.
Maintaining an updated website and keeping track of online patient reviews are essential elements for sustaining and growing a medical practice in this evermore connected world. At the end of the day, however, reputation management doesn’t have to be an overwhelming and harrowing endeavour. You may not be able to please everyone, but you can learn how to minimize -even reverse- the negative patient reviews and increase the online presence of positive ones.
The bottom line means happier patients, less stressed staff, and a practice that does more than just thrive. It grows.