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When to Discuss Online Reviews with Patients

There was a time when physicians stopped worrying about grades the moment they graduated from medical school. No more.

Today, hundreds of thousands of practitioners can have their reputations made or broken on the strength of their online reviews. A recent study by advisory firm Software Research found that 77 percent of patients searching for a new provider referenced reviews before making a decision. Even physician salaries and other compensation packages are being influenced by their cumulative scores on internal patient satisfaction surveys.

The online critical culture isn’t going anywhere. So how should physicians deal with the elephant in the exam room?

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According to Kevin Pho, M.D., a practicing physician and social media expert, doctors no longer have the option of shrugging their shoulders and ignoring the importance of reviews in their practice. Urging patients to complete online critiques the norm, but they should be prompted by the physician themselves. “I think it’s better coming from the physician,” Pho says. “It’s something I encourage clinicians to do with all of their patients.”

That’s a calculated strategy. The more reviews a physician has, whether it’s on a public site like Yelp or a survey overseen by a third-party health care evaluator like Press Ganey, the more diluted negative comments will become. And while you can’t dictate what a patient will say, how you present the prospect can make a difference. Physicians who say, “I look forward to reading your comments,” for example, introduce a personalized outcome: A patient isn’t shouting into the void, but knows their provider will take the time to review the review.

Otherwise, you don’t need to encourage a positive assessment or ask a direct question that makes them feel obligated to submit feedback. “You might say, ‘You’re going to get something in the mail, like a survey,’” Pho says. “You can tell them it’s important, that the feedback mechanism helps improve what you do and what your staff does.”

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If a patient is feeling motivated to offer comments, you don’t want to stifle their motivation by failing to provide guidance on how to submit them. For internal provider surveys, Pho recommends “handing them a card or some type of instructions on paper.” A quick tutorial in navigating the survey site will help discourage them from abandoning it if the process becomes confusing. A follow-up email from the office can also provide details while reminding patients that their feedback is important.

Of course, a physician will need to use some discretion when deciding whether or not it’s appropriate to ask for a review. Requesting feedback following difficult health discussions or procedures is probably poor timing. Some healthcare consultants recommend waiting until a new patient has had a follow-up appointment before suggesting they leave feedback since that gives them time to complete their possible treatment options and feel satisfied in the outcome of their care.

Afraid they won’t be satisfied? While negative reviews are not uncommon, an estimated 75 percent of them are centered around variables unrelated to a patient’s health. Limited parking, long wait times, or rude receptionists are the most common complaints, and taking preemptive steps to resolve these issues could see your negative responses dwindle. If you do have to endure them, Pho suggests trying to take a lesson from it: “The first thing I say to a clinician with a negative review is to listen to it. You might become aware of an area of weakness you can improve on.”

While many physicians instruct office managers to respond to public reviews, it’s usually only to urge the patient to contact the office to voice their concerns directly. (Naturally, no one in the office should publicly divulge details of a patient’s health history or care.) Often, patients just want to feel as though they’re being heard. If the physician demonstrates that they’re listening both online and off, reviews can become a valuable representation of your practice.

Online feedback is “here to stay, whether physicians like it or not,” says Pho.