Using Online Reviews to Grow Your Practice: 3 Tips

November 26, 2014

Patient growth is a priority for many practices and managing online reviews is a key driver.

Patient growth is extremely important to more than one-third of practices, and nearly 20 percent say that attracting new patients is their practice's biggest challenge, according to a joint survey by Physicians Practice and Kareo. In addition, 60 percent of practices rely almost solely on word of mouth to grow their businesses.

The landscape of healthcare is changing. As patients pay a larger portion of their own healthcare expenses, they are expecting an increased level of access and service. In addition, the younger generations are more "plugged in" to the Internet and want that level of electronic connectivity from their healthcare providers. Today, many patients say they would change providers for better service, lower costs, or more connectivity.

Word-of-mouth marketing alone just won't cut it anymore. You need to reach new patients through new media. In fact, for better or worse, your practice may already be reaching potential patients online. The Pew Research Center found that one in five Internet users has consulted online reviews and rankings of healthcare service providers and medical treatments.

"Review and rating sites rely on public information to populate their profiles," says Laurie Morgan, senior consultant and partner for Capko & Morgan, a practice management consulting firm. "These profiles exist whether the practice takes action or not. That public information is frequently wrong or outdated and the range of possible errors is huge. For example, it may contain outdated contact information or misstate the practice specialty. All of these mistakes can result in lost patients and revenue," she says.

There are three essential steps to take control of your practice's online reputation:

1. Find and own your online listings on top rating and review sites.

2. Update and complete all your listings.

3. Become an active participant in the rating and review process.

Find and update online listings

Most rating and review sites allow you to claim your information and make updates. Find every listing that you can. You want all the information about your practice and providers to be as accurate and up to date as possible. And if possible, make sure to add hyperlinks to your website and social pages like Facebook. Some sites require the physician to approve any changes, and may even ask for an NPI number to verify the physician's identity.

Having accurate listings, especially on prominent sites like Healthgrades, Yelp, and Google Places does two important things for your practice. It helps improve your website's ranking on search engines and increases the prominence of your placement in online searches. In addition, it allows you to monitor what is being said about your practice so that you can celebrate the good and respond to or fix the bad.

The process of owning your listings takes a little work on the front end, but it will be worth it when your online reputation improves and new patients contact you for an appointment. Use these basic steps:

1. Create a spreadsheet that has columns for the name of the site, the hyperlink, and what information is available there, as well as any current reviews or rankings.

2. Conduct a Google search several times over the course of two weeks to four weeks using your providers' names.

3. Go back after submitting provider updates to ensure your changes have been made.

4. Set a regular date on your calendar to check back for new reviews and ratings (once a month or so).

"Don't forget about payer directories, medical societies, and patient communities," suggests Morgan. "You might already have listings that should be updated or you may want to add one. If you are a rheumatologist, for example, you may want to see if you can list your practice on local, regional, or national resources for patients with rheumatoid arthritis."

If you are concerned that you don't have the time or resources for this important task, there are options. Some website and software vendors offer services to help you own and update listings and set up social media sites. There are also independent marketing applications that can help you with one or more of these tasks.

Engage in rating and reviewing

Your current and future patients are online, and they are listening to what others have to say about you. To stay competitive, you need to be online. You also need to listen to what people are saying and engage in the conversation.

According to Nielsen's 2011 Global Trust in Advertising Survey, 70 percent of global consumers trust online reviews, making them the second-most trusted form of advertising. But only 3 percent to 4 percent of Internet users have posted their experiences with healthcare service providers or treatments, according to the Pew Research Center. The problem: A small number of people may be influencing what others think of you. So you need to be a part of this conversation and drive your happy patients to post reviews.

As you check regularly on the review sites for new postings, be sure to respond. Thank people for positive reviews and use any negative reviews as an opportunity make improvements. Let unhappy reviewers know you want to fix the problem and you'd like to know more about their complaint. Then, you can take that conversation offline. Showing your willingness to be responsive and change can be just as powerful as a positive review.

Many practices are worried about the impact of negative reviews, but they aren't all bad. According to ZocDoc, an online physician search, rating, and appointment-scheduling site, patients are happy to book appointments with doctors who have received some negative reviews - so long as their reviews aren't overwhelmingly negative. It is not until a physician's overall rating falls to two and a half stars out of five stars that patient preference for that provider begins to decline significantly. In fact, of the 10 percent of doctors who receive the most appointments through ZocDoc, about three-quarters have at least one negative review.

Using a marketing application like ZocDoc or Demandforce is one way to increase positive reviews. These sites offer a closed-loop option for online reviews. This means that only verified patients who have actually seen the provider can leave a review. These services help your practice drive reviews via widgets on your website or follow-up texts and e-mails to patients.

Currently, only about 10 percent of practices use such applications. "The idea of online reputation and reviews is relatively new to the medical space, but it is also one with increasing importance," says Patrick Barry, general manager of Demandforce. "Doctors are realizing that in order to continue to keep their practice successful and to continue providing the best medical care to their patients, they need to keep up with current trends in the industry. Social media and online reviews were previously not thought of as important considerations to medical practices, but with today's Internet economy and consumer behavior they are crucial tools for keeping your practice on the cutting edge."

If patient growth is a primary objective for your practice, you must consider managing online reviews and ratings as an important task that needs your attention. Independent practices face many challenges, and to stay competitive yours will need to engage online. Of the patients who make appointments through the ZocDoc service, 85 percent are new patients. Having accurate listings, engaging in the online conversation about your practice, building your online presence, and increasing reviews may be some of the most important things your practice can do to bring in new patients.

Lea Chathamis content marketing manager for Kareo, which offers cloud-based, integrated medical billing, practice management, and electronic medical records software. E-mail her at Lea.Chatham@kareo.com.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Physicians Practice.