October 13, 2015

Online Patient Reviews – Important? Useful?

By Jeff Segal

Two questions to explore: Are online patient reviews important? What determines if patients will write them?

The first question is easy to answer. Yes, patient reviews are important and becoming a key factor in the viability and prosperity of medical practices. A 2014 Research Letter in JAMA concluded:

  • “Fifty-nine percent of respondents reported physician rating sites to be “somewhat important” (40%) or “very important” (19%) when choosing a physician.”
  • Among those who sought online physician ratings in the past year, 37% had avoided a physician with bad ratings.

These numbers are noteworthy. If a physician is the only game in town, and has a “monopoly” for a radius of 100 miles, then online ratings are probably irrelevant. For the rest, in other words, for the vast majority of practitioners, online ratings matter. Physicians who have recognized this trend – and taken action – are doing well. Those who have not risk sending prospective patients to a competitor.

Too few reviews online – or worse, being defined by a handful of negative reviews, is a challenge today. It’s hard to get patients to post – even when they promise to do so. Persuading patients to take that step is determined by five criteria:

  1. Free
  2. Easy-to-Do
  3. Relevant (Patient Voice)
  4. Anonymous (Private)
  5. “In the moment”

Let’s drill down:

Patients believe reading and posting reviews shouldn’t cost anything. Many of the dominant review sites are free. Some, such as Angie’s List, require a subscription. Patients would rather be steered to a site that’s free.

The more steps patients have to navigate, the less likely they will be to post. The more complex the process, the more it becomes a chore. Review sites must be easy and simple to use.

Patients form opinions about reviews based on the “freshness” of the posts; the number of reviews; and how the doctor responds to a complaint. Search engines such as Google weigh these factors also. Patients are more likely to post on sites that appear credible and authentic. Are reviews concentrated on a single vertical site? Are these reviews solely 5 stars with no negatives? Does the doctor have a range of evaluations across multiple sites?

Many doctors believe reviews posted anonymously are a problem. While they can mislead, for example, if posts are made by competitors or disgruntled employees, on balance, anonymous reviews are a good thing.

In a May 2015 analysis of 100,000+ patients using the eMerit point-of service platform across the nation and multiple specialties, 60% chose to be anonymous. While patients trust their doctors, they may not want to directly engage or confront them with complaints . Being able to post anonymously enables constructive feedback without fear of repercussions.

 “In the moment”
Everyone’s busy and once patients return home, they move on if they’re doing well. If they’re not doing well, they might make time to rant. Systems that enable point-of-service capture of online reviews are most likely to succeed in obtaining patient feedback. Systems that send email links to review sites fare worse. Least efficient is providing the patient a printed card with a link to the review site.

While, patients are increasingly using the Internet to find healthcare practitioners, they still take traditional routes –friends, family and referring doctors. Even so, patients still check online reviews to validate the recommendations of friends, family and referring doctors.

The Internet is here to stay. Patients are writing reviews. Patients are reading reviews. Patients are using reviews to make decisions as to who to see. If a practice wants new patient volume and revenue, embracing online reviews is a low-cost approach to achieving that goal.

Disclosure: Jeff Segal, is a member of SMHN, founder of Medical Justice Systems, and CEO of eMerit.


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Tags: Metrics & Analytics, Patient Involvement, Strategy, Tactics & Best Practices

Thanks for this great article, @jeffsegal. I hear many health care marketers complain about online reviews and many are stumped about how to handle them. In one discussion this week a marketing director said she leaves that up to the digital ad team. Any specific advice about Yelp?


Thanks for this great article, @jeffsegal. I hear many health care marketers complain about online reviews and many are stumped about how to handle them. In one discussion this week a marketing director said she leaves that up to the digital ad team. Any specific advice about Yelp?

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We provide a service – eMerit – which monitors what patients are saying on the Internet; and helps de-escalate conflict if the patient is known – or provide HIPAA compliant responses to the public – if appropriate. Frequently a negative can be turned into a positive. On occasion, negative reviews can be removed if they violate a site’s terms of use and the site agrees to remove the negative post. Finally, we provide a point of service iPad to gather reviews which -with patients’ permission – are uploaded to the dominant sites found on page one search engines. As we say in the operating room when addressing infections, the solution to pollution is dilution.

Yelp is a struggle for everyone. The same principles apply. Does a negative review violate terms of use. If so, there’s 50% chance the review will be removed or moved to filtered page. HIPAA compliant responses are also helpful. Remember, a patient’s picture on Yelp profile is enough to establish his or her identity, so be careful in responding on Yelp.

Informative article. I especially appreciate the comments re: negative feedback. As a consumer, when I am researching reviews for any purchase….and this includes healthcare providers…I look for balance in the comments. No one product/person can have only 5 star reviews…and as you point out….it’s interesting how folks handle negative. It its done in a positive way, it helps me see the company/practice is responsive.

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