Perhaps one of the most disquieting issues for doctors and other healthcare professionals today is the growing numbers of patients using online rating and review websites. I’m referring to services like Yelp.com, Angie’s List, Healthgrades.com, RateMD’s.com and Vitals.com, just to name a few of the more reputable ones. Medical professionals and consumer advocates are split in their opinions on the usefulness, accuracy and fairness of rating doctors online and it’s easy to understand why.
On the physician side, it is fair to question whether a handful of anonymous reviews posted on these kinds of websites can provide a fair and accurate representation of the multitude of patient cases they may treat over the course of their careers. Dissatisfied consumers are far more likely to go online to complain in public, than to take the time to write and post positive feedback, without incentive.
Patients may be uninformed, emotionally unstable or just seeking to vent and lash out due to their health circumstances without giving much thought to the impact their reviews can have on the careers of the doctors and healthcare organizations they target.
The entire ratings and reviews industry has also periodically come under scrutiny due to the ease of manipulation by those who would seek to do businesses harm by providing false reviews, as well as those who would inflate their own business rankings by posting fake positive reviews.
Additionally, medical cases are typically complex and while patients may be free to go online and discuss whatever case details they might feel comfortable sharing anonymously, the same is not true for physicians who are restricted from discussing patient health information due to federal HIPPA privacy and security laws.
Finally, these kinds of reviews often focus on everything except medical outcomes. That is, many tend to focus upon bedside demeanor, the disposition of other office staff, ability to get appointments, wait time, hygiene, listening and responding to patient concerns, follow-up, insurance and costs.
Most physicians agree that a fair, informed, accurate and reliable method for collecting and sharing patient reviews of doctors and healthcare professionals has yet to be developed due to these challenges.
On the flipside, many patients argue that online reviews are useful and lament that there are not more of them. While the numbers are growing, reviews of healthcare professionals still lag far behind those of say, restaurants, landscapers and consumer goods. Some suggest that this is due to the fear of litigious doctors being more inclined and financially able to take legal action against them for defamation, or in some cases, being “blacklisted” by other local physicians in their geographic areas while being left with few, or no other healthcare alternatives.
Patients argue that they shouldn’t have to find themselves frustrated by the lack of information for evaluating healthcare professionalism currently available, which generally forces them into deciding what doctors to visit based upon office locations.
They point to the value of having access to all information that might be conveyed in online reviews including insights about the attitudes of office staff, ability to get appointments, average wait times, answering or returning phone calls, and ease or difficulty of getting doctor feedback.
While the ability of review sites to truly and intelligently assess medical treatment decisions and outcomes can be debated, patients point to the importance of having access to public opinions about which physicians are most likely to listen to their concerns, treat them with respect and engage in dialogue with adequate explanations of their recommendations. They note that doctors can and do make mistakes, and that those that do so more often than their peers, should be held accountable in the same ways that many other brands, businesses and service providers are.
I believe there are fair points on both sides of these arguments. Like so many things in life, the perfect solution(s) may not exist, requiring us to deal with realities of our circumstances and managing them in the most effective means, possible.
The reality of online patient reviews of healthcare providers is that they are both increasing, and increasingly important to business. Alison Diana of Information Week Healthcare recently cited a 2011 Harvard Business School study that found that a 1-star drop in rating could reduce a provider’s business by almost 10%. She also noted that twenty-three percent of individuals surveyed by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 said they used ratings sites, and that the number of doctors reviewed on Rate MDs increased from 2,475 in 2005 to 112,000 in 2010. That site now boasts over 2,000,000 reviews for physicians, globally.
When you think about it, physician decisions have almost always been based upon word-of-mouth. The only difference is that the rise of social media, and online review sites have amplified peer-to-peer recommendations. And while defamation law in the digital age will surely continue to evolve, the prospect of trying to suppress negative online reviews by threat of legal action is not a fight that is easily won. Indeed, it can be quite costly, and both consumers and review websites are afforded strong protections under the first amendment when it comes to expressing and publishing their opinions.
So what are doctors, dentists and hospitals to do?
My own opinion is that they should always strive to take the high road, while managing their online reputations, attentively.
- Make sure that your online profiles are filled out and complete. Being proactive in this way will not only enable more customers who need you, to find you; it will ensure the accuracy of online information about you.
- Monitor for positive and negative reviews by setting up Google alerts for mentions of your name or practice.
- Respond publicly to negative reviews and try to move the conversation, offline by asking the patient to contact you to discuss.
- If you can identify a patient who may have created a negative review, attempt to contact them offline to see how you might be able to rectify the situation. If this is something that you can do, and proceed with resolving, then it is fair to ask your customer to consider removing or revising their online complaint.
- Add FAQs to your website, to set patient expectations regarding the most likely or common issues (i.e. appointment setting, wait times, follow-up communications, insurance, etc.)
- Drive negative reviews down in the search engines by encouraging positive reviews. Chances are, most of your patients are happy and grateful for you. And most people like to help others. Let your patients know (via email or a form at the front desk), that honest third-party reviews are important to your business and that their feedback is valued, while providing links to various sites where they might post on your behalf.
- Finally, listen, learn and adapt. If customers are complaining, see if there are changes you could make to address these issues, large or small.=
The challenges many healthcare professionals and organizations are facing today, are similar to what many large businesses and brands have been dealing with for some time, now. The fact is that we are in a new day and age. The World Wide Web has helped to create an increasingly connected and empowered consumer. This is evolution. And while things are not always easy or fair, this can serve to make many of us better.
If you’d like to learn more about practical, cost-effective options for healthcare website development, and online marketing for healthcare professionals, call Steven Emsley, Senior Leads Specialist at Web.com (Nasdaq: WWWW) Web.com is a Google Premiere Partner and one of the world’s online marketing leaders for small and medium businesses. Steven can be reached at 904.347.3724 or email@example.com