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How Much Should Physicians Care About Online Reviews?


Despite the less than impressive state of online physician reviews, it is a factor you should consider in your medical practice marketing.

It’s now common practice to discuss healthcare as a marketplace. Reduced waiting times, physician attentiveness to patients at the point of care, and access to information through a patient portal are all touted as benefits that physicians should offer to attract more patients.

But if healthcare is positioned as a competitive marketplace, then the ubiquitous “customer review” must surely have its place in this new era of digital services.

Consumers certainly seem to value user reviews in other industries. A survey by Dimensional Research of over 1,000 consumers found that 88 percent had been influenced by an online review during the purchasing process. An even larger survey found that 85 percent of consumers will read up to 10 reviews when forming their opinion of a local business.

In some cases consumers trust the online reviews of a stranger nearly as much as they do word of mouth testimonials from someone they know.

Independent practices seem to be taking notice. Michael Fertik of Reputation.com confirms that physicians are his firm’s fastest growing customer segment. Reputation.com helps businesses investigate and gauge their online reputation.

Further, the rise of popular sites like RateMDs.com, Healthgrades, and Yelp have given patients capable platforms for airing their grievances or promoting their physicians. So reviews must be playing a central role in many providers’ marketing plans, right?

Not exactly.

Like other technology movements before it - think seamless information exchange and online access to personal information - healthcare is proving difficult territory for the review machine to conquer.

Healthcare Reviews are Complex and Undervalued
Despite the aforementioned popularity of reviews in other industries, a minority of patients value them when searching for a physician. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan found that only about 25 percent of patients are swayed by online ratings when searching for a doctor.

Factors such as having a convenient office location and accepting a patient’s insurance played much more powerful roles in patient decisions.

In addition, the Pew Research Center found that while 80 percent of respondents in a recent survey search the Internet for health information, only 16 percent look at doctor reviews online.

Why is there such a discrepancy?

First and foremost, online review sites have failed to solve the ignominious problem of review credibility. Many sites allow reviewers to post anonymously, leaving the door wide open for unfounded assertions. Even Yelp, perhaps the champion of online review sites, routinely hides or suppresses reviews it believes to be false or untrustworthy.

Naturally, patients are weary of trusting such a source when deciding which physician to choose.

In terms of the actual ratings being put forth, many focus on the communication skills and friendliness of the staff and doctor as well as other factors like the availability of parking and waiting time for a visit. And it’s understandable that these factors would be rated for independent physicians, because they play a major role in how patients rate hospitals too.

And even these types of reviews are not left very often. Pew’s survey found that just 4 percent of respondents had left a review about a physician.

Unfortunately, the friendliness of a physician does little to forecast her ability to practice medicine and actually heal patients. And until this type of information can be effectively compared, physician reviews will remain periphery sources for many.

Will Reviews Eventually Rule?  
Despite the less than impressive state of online physician reviews, it is a factor you should consider in your marketing. The 25 percent of patients who consider them remain a significant part of the population, and this market could be especially important if you’re starting a new practice.

The integrity of reviews is also increasing. For example, ZocDoc offers patients a list of physicians in their area as well as their available appointment times. ZocDoc users can schedule an appointment online and leave a review once they’ve completed their appointment. Only users who book appointments can review physicians.

Further, having this type of information available to consumers is a priority of the Affordable Care Act. Earlier this year, CMS launched Physician Compare, which used PQRS scores to rate the quality of a physician or practice.

While it’s a somewhat different criteria, Physician Compare does signal that a number stakeholders from both the private and public sector are working to create a viable, online physician rating system.

For now, online reviews should be promoted after a patient’s appointment, in person or over the phone. Their value hasn’t reached the dizzying heights of other industries, and it’s still better to focus on finding medical software that improves the efficiency of your practice, but they certainly shouldn’t be ignored.

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