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How Patients Use Online Reviews

It’s not often that patients jump at an opportunity to pay for a doctor out of pocket. But according to a survey conducted by the Software Advice consulting firm, 47 percent of respondents would do just that, visiting a doctor out-of-network even if an in-network doctor were more affordable and convenient.

Why? Because that doctor has a better online review profile.

In today’s search engine-controlled information world, patient reviews are among the very first things prospective patients will see when crawling the web for information. In fact, they’re likely to be exposed to reviews even if they’re not looking for them. “Reviews find them more than they find reviews,” says Pascal Bensoussan, Chief Product Officer at Reputation.com, a portal that manages provider profiles online.

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Not that patients aren’t looking themselves. An estimated 77 percent will read online reviews before deciding to book an appointment with a provider. But which reviews are important? Does the number of reviews matter? Can negative reviews actually be good for providers? (Spoiler: believe it or not, they can.) Here’s how patients are finding, reading, and digesting these paragraph-sized evaluations of health care services.

Why (and how) they search

The open-sourced nature of the internet has made online reviews for a variety of services indispensable. When we want to book a hotel room, we check Travelocity to make sure it doesn’t have bed bugs; when we need a plumber to replace a water heater, we make sure the repair shingle hasn’t flooded anyone’s basement. And when patients need a doctor, they want to be told they’re making the right choice.

“The first thing people do when they get referred to someone is check Google,” says Mary Hall, CEO of IHealthSpot.com, a physician consulting firm. “They want to check qualifications and get insight into the personality of the practice. They want to tell themselves, ‘This doctor will be nice to me. This staff will be nice to me.’”

Reviews from Google, Zocdoc, Facebook, and other sites will grab a search engine’s attention with a high volume of reviews. It’s not necessary to type “John Smith M.D. reviews” to be exposed to patient experiences—site algorithms take care of that for web browsers. And once they begin reading reviews, according to Bensoussan, the more sites they’ll visit. “We have evidence that patients look at multiple review sites,” he says, which means having a good profile on one site may not necessarily outdo a negative or mixed reaction on another.

How patients review the reviews

Once a prospective patient is reading reviews, they have a number of places on a page to focus on. According to Bensoussan, they’re usually attracted to an overall star rating—the aggregate of user opinions. “It’s a graphical representation,” he says. According to Hall, three stars and above is good enough to confirm a referral choice.

Next, they may try to locate the most recent reviews. “The age of the review matters,” Bensoussan says. “Something that’s a year old, 18 months old, that isn’t as valued as a review from the last three months. People know things change.”

Patients also prioritize review volume, finding a physician with only a handful of online reviews insufficient to judge. They’ll also tend to gravitate toward negative reviews, since those impact the reassurance they’re seeking. But according to Hall, only certain kinds of negative reviews make an impression. “Usually, reviews talking about parking, having to walk, billing, things like that are not going to matter much,” she says.

More important is bedside manner and comments about how both the physician and staff treat patients. “’Bedside manner’ is a highly-referenced topic,” Bensoussan says. “People care about staff professionalism and wait times.”

Keywords that don’t please prospective patients? Lack of communication and rude staff.

What the perfect review page looks like

Believe it or not, the ideal of flawless five-star ratings may not be the best thing for your practice, especially if there are only a handful. “A doctor with eight five-star reviews might not be taken as seriously as a doctor with 26 reviews and three of them negative,” Bensoussan says. That volume lends credence to the idea that the reviews aren’t coming from family or friends; the “flaw” of a negative review further humanizes the office. “People actually get confused when there are no negative reviews. Those tend to lend credibility to the positive ones.”

Hopefully, words like “compassionate” and “communicates” will be peppered in the review text. (“Caring,” “knowledgeable,” and “wonderful” can also catch the reader’s eye.) And when there is a negative comment, a prospective patient will be soothed somewhat if the office has made an attempt to respond to the situation.

“It minimizes the impact of the review,” Bensoussan says. “It becomes a proof point, that there’s a human on the other end who cares about the patient.”

In summary: patients like positive reviews—but not uniformly positive—with a substantial volume of comments. They want to know your staff is professional, caring, and won’t make them wait too long for an appointment. If there is a negative comment, having the office follow up with an invitation to discuss the issue privately can help mitigate the damage. Monitored properly, those bad reviews even have the potential to help patient attrition. “We know patients are more likely to return to a practice if a bad experience was handled properly,” Bensoussan says.

Review sites are here to stay. But with a little effort, they’ll attract—and keep—far more patients than they could ever push away.

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