Report Highlights Social Media’s Growing Influence on Patients

April 19, 2012

Why physician practices should do more to take charge of their online image, and engage with patients electronically.

To say your patients like to rant on the Internet is a little bit of an understatement. Today, one third of consumers now use social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as online forums, to seek medical information, share symptoms, and  - even better! - broadcast how they feel about doctors, drugs, and health plans. 

And that’s just the first of the many findings unveiled by research group PwC in a recent report, which includes the results of a survey of 1,000-plus consumers.

According to the survey, four in 10 consumers say they have used social media to find health-related consumer reviews of treatments or physicians, one in three have sought information related to other patients' experiences with their disease, and one in four have posted about their health experience.

When asked how information found through social media would affect their health decisions, nearly half (45 percent) of consumers said it would affect their decision to get a second opinion. And 41 percent said it would affect their choice of a specific doctor, hospital, or medical facility. Thirty-four percent of respondents said it would affect their decision about taking a certain medication.

So what does this mean physicians should do in order to keep their technologically happy patients from blasting complaints online via Tweet or a blog?

Robin Settle, a director in PwC's Health Industries Practice, suggested practices take a cue and use technology to do more engaging with patients. Specifically, she said, physicians should adopt technologies such as the patient portal, which make communication with patients easier and can improve satisfaction rates. 

“I think physician practices need to acknowledge that 30 percent of patients are engaging in social media for their care, and patients really do want to communicate with their physicians,” Settle told Physicians Practice.

Laurie Morgan, a healthcare consultant with Capko & Co., said practices should also do more to take charge of their online image.

“The PWC report touches on physician review/ratings sites, too, and I think a big mistake many practices make is sitting on the sidelines with respect to these sites,” Morgan told Physicians Practice. “They're ignoring the ratings sites, perhaps hoping they'll go away! But they're not going away, and patients are using them - and, often the information they find there about physician locations and phone numbers is outdated.”

This, she added, in turn influences Google's results - both because it confounds the search results (if your practice appears online in different places with different contact info, how can Google know which is correct?) and because Google's own "Places" records rely on other directories for what they publish (so incorrect data can be directly promoted by Google). 

“It's critically important for practices to go onto ratings sites and claim their directory listings, a process that is usually very easy and free, and even gives the practice a chance to dress up their directory listings with pictures and a link back to their own site, if they have one,” said Morgan. “If the practice doesn't have a site of its own, it is even more important that they make sure their directory listings are correct!”