Why Every Provider Must Manage Their Virtual Presence
As a healthcare provider in a world so enthralled in a combination of both digital resources and consumerism, it is imperative you are aware of your virtual presence and know how to effectively manage your online reputation.
Today’s patient population is dominated by healthcare consumers who want to make informed decisions based off digital resources readily available to them. As customers, we rarely buy products without first reading customer reviews on the product website, Amazon, or other websites such as Yelp, and even various social media outlets. So why would healthcare be any different?
Simple, it’s not.
A study1 conducted by Google of medical and dental practices found the following:
- 77% of patients used search engines before booking an appointment
- 83% of patients browsed practice websites to learn more before booking
- 50% of patients used health information sites to research various practices
- 26% of patients relied on consumer-generated reviews to influence their decision
- 48% of patients took over 2 weeks to research before booking an appointment
We don’t need statistics to prove what we already know as an industry: patients today are taking on new characteristics of a consumer-oriented mindset. As a result, practices need to adapt to support a more customer service-based model which includes the consideration and mindfulness of an online reputation.
Today’s Patient Population
When I talk about today’s population, let’s just cut to the chase: I am talking about Millennials. And when I specify what these “patients” (millennials) expect out of a practice, I am referring to the digital presence and social proof that are expected in a competitive market that is our healthcare system today.
Millennials, including myself, have grown up in a technology-dominant environment our whole lives. We are now at the age when we are most likely looking to establish a long-term relationship with the healthcare system for the first time, and there is a good chance we are also the primary decision-makers regarding our parents’ and grandparents’ healthcare. As we move forward with these decisions, the internet will play a major role in the process. We are internet-dependent high-information consumers in every aspect of our lives, including healthcare, which is why your practice must be vigilant of your online presence to meet our expectations and engage millennials as prospective new patients.
The industry, as a whole, is dealing with a generation of digital way finders who prefer to be well-informed and equipped with the knowledge needed to avoid a negative experience and wasted time or money. Realistically, this means patients prefer to see providers with reliable online reviews from other patients. This type of information appeals not only to millennials, but to the vast majority of patients since it’s what we’re used to in the reassuring world of Amazon and Yelp reviews.
How it Used to Be
Back in what I will call the “digital dark ages”, simply having a website, let alone a handful of HTML pages, was enough to be found online and place your online presence light years ahead of your competitors. This could not be further from the truth today.
To be found online—and not hidden in pages and pages of Google search results—you need a heck of a lot more than one result on the search radar. Today, you need to create a collective presence using several outlets that work together.
Typically, this would include websites, blogs, one or more social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others, plus publications, local directory searches, industry articles, and more. Now with that laundry list of online channels, we must accept the reality that a strong presence builds over time, not overnight, but there is no reason not to start working on it today.
Take Action: Search Your Practice
Take the first, most intimidating, yet easiest step in addressing and managing your online reputation: search your practice.
Your online reputation is an extension of your practice. To understand how your practice compares, you must know what is being said online about your practice and clinicians. Put your name in the major search engines and see what comes up. Taking this first step will ensure you do not neglect your online presence, which is the most destructive strategy a practice can have in today’s healthcare industry.
Managing Your Practice’s Reputation
Practices must be proactive, not reactive. It is essential to own your reputation; do not allow it to own you!
Your online reputation is your image on the internet. Online Reputation Management (ORM) is the actual process of controlling what results appear when someone searches your name or your practice’s name. ORM works to promote positive content to the top of your search results.
So, what creates your online reputation? The simple answer: Anything and everything that is on the web. Remember: the internet never forgets. Your online reputation is composed of things we expect, like your practice website, publications, press releases or articles mentioning you or your practice. However, less obvious things like your social media accounts, such as LinkedIn or Twitter, physician reviews, mentions in online forms, and blog posts contribute to your search engine results and connect to form your online reputation.
With these countless outlets comes the responsibility of providing social proof to establish legitimacy in the cyber environment. People are hardwired to copy the actions of others; they look to others for how they should be acting in situations where they don’t feel they possess sufficient knowledge to make their own decisions. When we apply this concept to the digital world, the more positive reviews and the number of followers or likes your practice has on social media, can be the first step in gaining the trust of potential patients.
Which means, while the World Wide Web is a great opportunity to market your practice and increase visibility if you aren’t providing enough social proof, it could also be detrimental to your business.
Consider this article a call to action; it’s time to be proactive and start paying attention to what is circulating on the internet regarding your practice. It is important to recognize how many different places patient reviews could be hiding.
A study2 of 4,999 online physician rating sites identified these 10 as the most commonly visited sites with user-generated content:
- Kudzu.com, and
Track where patients are finding reviews and recommendations about your group and use what you find to your advantage. Designate someone in your practice to systematically monitor online reviews and respond to comments. You can also install Google alerts, social mentions, or other pulse-checker software to assist with this function.
In general, the appropriate course of action for handling online reviews is to respond to each one – positive or negative. This shows the online community that your practice is genuinely interested in and concerned with your patients’ experiences and opinions and that you are willing to address them professionally.
You must accept the reality that you will not make everyone happy, however, you can treat each reviewer with respect – especially when everyone else can see your communications. Try to avoid using a generic or template-sounding response. Instead, read and accept comments for understanding. By acknowledging the patient’s perspective and learning from their comments – good or bad – you can better your practice.
If you do come across a not-so-flattering review, do not respond in a defensive, emotional or dismissive way. Try to keep in mind that the negative issue or comment is significant to the patient. Remember that they are expressing their feelings and expect a reply that, at the very least, acknowledges their concerns.
Lastly, and most importantly, providers should never take it upon themselves to respond to online reviews. Instead, providers should either designate a staff member to this task or outsource responses to reputation management vendors. This approach will avoid making a situation worse and ensure no unintended negative, or even legal, consequences for the practice.
Although patients can write freely about their visit, physicians cannot do the same because they are bound by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). As a clinician, you cannot reference a specific, identifiable or individual patient. In truth, even acknowledging that someone is your patient while responding to a review is a violation of HIPAA.
The Possible Consequences
Warren Buffet once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Now, Warren may not have been referring to a provider’s online reputation and its impact on their practice, but the same concept applies.
In 2016, The Washington Post investigated 3,000+ physician responses to negative reviews on Yelp and Google which showed that an alarming number of clinicians violated HIPAA when responding to these distraught patients. These patients lodged formal complaints with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which enforces HIPAA. OCR issued warnings and even opened investigations on some of these practices as a result.
While finding yourself in the middle of an OCR investigation could be potentially damaging to your reputation there is something even worse your providers could do…
For example, in the same year as The Washington Post investigation, a Manhattan dentist sued multiple patients for their negative reviews left on Yelp. As a result, national news outlets began covering the lawsuit with headlines such as, “A Manhattan dentist has been trying to extract money from patients who give him bad reviews online.” These headlines eventually caught the attention of senior executives at Yelp and years later the practice still has a consumer alert pop-up on their Yelp page that states:
“This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers.
As a reminder, reviewers who share their experiences have a First Amendment right to express their opinions on Yelp.” How many prospective patients have seen this alert and immediately continued their search for a different dentist?
With this extreme example in mind, I suggest not trying to delete negative content, but instead bury it with positive content. After all, your online presence is the new pathway to your front door and your reputation begins with what the Internet communicates.
What Your Practice Needs to Do
While the thought of managing your online presence and reviews can be overwhelming and stressful, understand that this is a tool for prospective and even current patients to ensure they are receiving high quality healthcare and can feel confident in their provider when they may be at their most vulnerable.
Some tips and tricks to assist you in managing your online reputation are:
- As a PROVIDER, never respond to positive or negative comment as it could be a compliance issue
- Designate someone in your practice to systematically monitor online reviews and respond to comments
- Have a policy in place for how office staff (or someone similarly removed from patient treatment) should respond to reviews both good and bad
- Don’t be afraid to use poor reviews as helpful feedback that could improve your practice
Be aware that online reviews exist and acknowledge they aren’t going away
Maintaining a positive digital image can be challenging, especially as social media and online review websites are becoming formative players in the healthcare arena. However, if well-managed and not ignored, reviews can spark improvement and lead to a more transparent provider-patient relationship that fosters patient engagement and a positive patient experience.
“The Digital Journey to Wellness: Hospital Selection.” Google, Google, Sept. 2012, www.thinkwithgoogle.com/advertising-channels/search/the-digital-journey-to-wellness-hospital-selection/.
Kadry1, Bassam, et al. “Analysis of 4999 Online Physician Ratings Indicates That Most Patients Give Physicians a Favorable Rating.” Journal of Medical Internet Research, JMIR Publications Inc., Toronto, Canada, 2011, www.jmir.org/2011/4/e95/.