Reviews can make or break a medical practice — and since most people tend to judge books by their covers, physicians must be proactive about managing their reputation online.
In a physician’s office, patients take doctors at their word. Online, they can take them at everyone else’s. While it’s true that building a healthy online reputation is critical for medical practices to succeed in the digital age, the truth is that this “building” isn’t done directly by you so much as it is by your patients. You can provide the best care in the world, but if it isn’t impressing your patients, there’s not much chance your reputation will benefit.
Today, roughly 80% of Americans search for health information online, according to NBC, and nearly 40% look at online physician ratings before seeing a doctor (54% of millennials, naturally), according to mobilehealthnews. This is wonderful news if those reviews are stellar, as 88% of consumers trust them as much as personal recommendations, as Search Engine Land reports. If they’re not, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.
For this reason, medical practices must be especially proactive about online reputation management, actively reaching out to both happy and dissatisfied customers across digital media. They also have to be on the lookout for unsavory content that can sink a practice, like fake and overblown reviews on sites like Yelp, RateMD, Healthgrades, and Vitals.
Bad Reviews Are a Big Deal, But Google May Be Leveling the Field
Online, medical practices are often the unfortunate victims of sampling bias, where small numbers of negative online reviews are given undue attention. Healthcare IT news found that 96% of doctors have fewer than ten reviews on the first page of Google search results, which means that the few reviews available often represent patients who have had particularly strong emotional reactions to their experiences.
As you can imagine, their opinions are often negative, but that doesn’t mean they accurately reflect a doctor’s and/or medical practice’s actual standards of care. It’s also not unusual for them to be fake — numerous scamming companies have paid hefty fines after being caught inventing bad reviews about small businesses, as Reuters reports.
This should be of particular concern to physicians. Negative reviews (whether they’re fake or real) put medical practices in serious danger of losing patients, but unfortunately there’s little that doctors can do about them. As Buzzfeed reports, HIPAA laws prevent doctors from publicly discussing their patients, or, in other words, refuting these claims.
In the case of Yelp, doctors can improve their review standings, but only by paying hundreds of dollars to become a paid member. This enables them to do things like move positive reviews into Yelp’s “Recommended” section, as explained by WTOP. This smacks of shady business practice to many — in fact, Yelp has actually been sued for extortion (albeit unsuccessfully) by a number of businesses, as the International Business Times.
However, Google may be leveling the playing field somewhat. According to the SEM Post, on February 22nd, webmasters began noticing a dramatic decrease in the number of review stars displayed in search results pages. The first day saw a drop of 14.5%, followed by an additional 12% drop within the next 24 hours, and the numbers have continued to decline from there.
Although it’s unclear whether this is a permanent change, a temporary experiment, or even just a bug in the algorithm (Google has yet to officially comment on the change), for those with unwarranted poor ratings, it’s definitely a reason to celebrate.
How Can Medical Practices Manage Their Reputations?
This doesn’t mean that doctors are helpless to control their online image. There are some simple steps doctors can take to enhance the effect of positive reviews while lessening the negative impact of bad ones:
Medical practices should “claim” their reviews on review sites, publically stating that they are the doctor being praised in the review to validate not only that review, but also future ones that appear in the same place.
Practices must also take an active role in communicating with their online audience. For every glowing review or furious accusation, doctors should either reply directly on the review site (where HIPAA-compliant) or send the patient a personal note or email.
As Medical Practice Insider notes, it’s a good practice to encourage your patients to review you, especially on your website, whenever possible. Still, you ought to tread carefully, as Yelp heavily frowns on actively soliciting customer reviews.
While medical practices can’t control what people say about them online, they can control their own marketing message. By creating content that speaks to their audience and optimizing their website, a medical practice can positively engage with potential patients, regardless of reviews. After all, people are perceptive — if you project a positive and professional image online, prospective patients will have no trouble making up their own minds.