How Patients Use Online Reviews

Internet reviews sites, such as Yelp and Healthgrades, have a growing influence on doctors’ reputations and ability to attract new patients. We’ve conducted surveys in the past showing how, why and when patients use reviews sites.

This year, we revisit the topic with fresh data on how patients use online reviews.

We’ll also provide examples of reputation management software solutions and tips that can help physicians manage their online presence while keeping patients happy and healthy.

Key Findings

  • A healthy online presence is essential, as this year’s findings showed that eighty-two percent of patients who responded to our survey use online reviews to evaluate physicians.
  • Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of patients use online reviews as their first step in finding a new doctor, so your online reputation is often a first impression for many patients.
  • A good review history can bring out-of-network patients to your practice, as evidenced by the fact that nearly half of respondents (48 percent) would go out of their insurance network for a doctor with favorable reviews.
  • Only 7 percent of patients leave “very negative” or “somewhat negative” feedback on reviews sites, so the majority of reviews will be neutral or positive and easier to engage with.
  • Sixty-five percent of respondents feel it’s “very” or “moderately important” for doctors to respond to online reviews.

Most Patients Use Online Reviews

To collect the data for this report, we conducted a survey of U.S. patients, asking them about their use of online reviews sites. It turns out that these sites are growing in popularity.

82 percent of patients surveyed consult a reviews website with some frequency to view or post comments and ratings of healthcare staff.

In fact, the number of patients who report using reviews sites has grown steadily every year of this survey from only 68 percent back in 2014.

Laura M. Sams, former social media and reputation management consultant for the Carilion Clinic in Virginia, says the implications of this finding are wide-ranging.

“This is huge for the healthcare industry, and is the main reason why practices, providers and health systems need to pay attention to what people are saying about their services online.”    Tweet this quote

Laura M. SamsFormer Reputation Management Consultant, Carilion Clinic

The frequency with which patients use reviews sites varies, but a combined majority do so regularly: 54 percent report using them “often” or “sometimes,” while slightly more than one-quarter of respondents use them “rarely.”

Frequency With Which Patients Use Reviews Sites

This data suggests patients are finding a great deal of value in online reviews of medical practices. What’s more, this dynamic can make or break a medical practice’s online reputation. It’s not just that so many patients are using reviews—it’s that those reviews are often the first thing patients see.

Search engine optimization (SEO) experts agree that user-generated content, such as reviews, is heavily weighted by search engines. This means reviews are often the first impression a patient will get of a medical provider when they type the practice’s name into a search field.

For example, take a look at Dr. Scott Kramer’s search results on Google. This gynecologist from Fremont, California has positive reviews from multiple websites dominating the first page of his search engine results.

Results on Google for Dr. Kramer’s name

Kramer achieved this outcome thanks, in part, to Kareo’s DoctorBase software. The system, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later in this report, sends his patients automated invitations to review his services across all the major healthcare reviews sites.

These efforts help increase the number of reviews attributed to his office—pushing positive feedback to the top of his search engine results pages and enhancing his online reputation.

Of course, that positive feedback is only attainable if a physician provides great service that patients feel good about. First and foremost, providers must take good care of patients in order to garner positive reviews.

Most Patients Use Online Reviews as a First Step

A good online reputation is important for more than just visibility…

Most patients surveyed use online reviews as a determining factor for choosing a new doctor.

Seventy-two percent of respondents report using online reviews as a first step to seeking a provider, while 19 percent use them to validate the choice of a doctor they’ve tentatively selected.

When Patients Use Online Reviews Sites

These results show that online reviews do play a role in patient retention. But it’s clear that most patients are consulting reviews to decide whether they should make a first appointment with a provider.

The good news for providers? This means they can leverage reviews sites as marketing channels, and use them to grow their patient population.

Kareo DoctorBase, the software we mentioned in the previous section, helps providers keep track of a number of metrics to evaluate the success of their online marketing efforts.

For example, users can generate reports covering a specific time period to see how many online appointment requests and phone calls the practice received.

Kareo DoctorBase performance dashboard

Having this data at their fingertips allows medical professionals to identify patient engagement trends. This offers greater insight on which channels new patients are using to find providers. It also reflects how current patients are interacting with the practice (e.g., via phone, email or patient portal).

Positive Reviews Can Persuade Patients to Go Out-of-Network

The next point provides further evidence for the influential nature of online reviews sites.

Nearly half of respondents (48 percent) say they would consider going to an out-of-network doctor if their reviews were better than those of an in-network doctor.

Willingness to Go Out-of-Network for Better Reviewed Doctor

What’s more, Sams predicts the percentage of patients willing to go out-of-network in pursuit of more positive reviews will only continue to grow.

“This will be a trend,” she says. “Patients want good experiences, and they want to feel like their time and money is being used appropriately when it comes to healthcare.”

This finding is especially interesting, because out-of-pocket costs are much more expensive for patients whose physicians aren’t covered by insurance.

For example, a study by industry trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans found the average out-of-network charge for a neck/spine disk surgery was nearly 640 percent higher than the price paid by Medicare.

A significant percentage of patients are willing to overlook important factors, such as cost and convenience, in favor of positive online reviews when choosing a new healthcare provider.

Most Patients Post Positive or Neutral Reviews Online

Next, we asked respondents what kind of online reviews they typically write about a doctor.

A combined 52 percent of patients report leaving “very positive” or “somewhat positive” feedback, while 11 percent write “neutral” reviews.

Only 7 percent of respondents write “very” or “somewhat negative” reviews. Finally, 30 percent tell us they’ve never written an online review about a healthcare provider.

Type of Online Review Patients Typically Post

Physician concerns about negative reviews are common across all medical specialties. The fact that so many patients are sharing positive experiences online, rather than focusing on the negative ones, is very encouraging—and may be surprising to some. Indeed, this data suggests bad reviews don’t actually happen very often.

What’s more, software can help providers capture some of this positive feedback from patients. Sams says Carilion Clinic’s patient feedback management software, Binary Health Analytics, has made it easier for clinicians get kudos for delivering excellent care.

“Since beginning our [software] program, we’ve been pleased to see so many positive reviews,” says Sams, “and [the system has] helped us share these internally with staff.”

Our survey results also indicate that a significant percentage of patients (30 percent) could be writing reviews, but aren’t.

Simple Interact, a stand-alone patient relationship solution that can be integrated with various practice management systems, provides an example of how practices can automate the process of recruiting reviews.

After each office visit, the software can send patients a short survey to take on their mobile device. After filling out this survey, patients are given links to online reviews sites.

Depending on the type of mobile device they have (e.g., iPhone or Android), customized instructions and links to specific reviews platforms (e.g., Google Plus or Facebook) are provided.

Mobile screenshots of Simple Interact

Ravi Kalidindi, CEO of Simple Interact, discusses a business that has done this successfully:

Example: Dermatology practice Sonoma Skin Works in Frisco, Texas has accumulated 177 positive reviews on Google Plus, Yelp, Healthgrades, Vitals and Facebook since implementing the software.

Furthermore, 48 percent of the practice’s new patient acquisition during 2015 was due to its online reputation. Staff calculated this figure by having patients fill out digitized intake forms asking how they heard about the dermatology center.

Most Patients Feel Doctors Should Respond to Negative Reviews

Unfortunately, negative reviews do happen sometimes—and many physicians have difficulty deciding how to handle them. In light of this, we asked patients whether they think it’s important for doctors to respond to negative comments on reviews websites.

The majority of respondents (65 percent) feel it’s “very” or “moderately important” for doctors to post a response.

Only 27 percent believe it’s “minimally” or “not important,” and 8 percent don’t have an opinion either way.

Importance of Doctors Responding to Bad Reviews

By some estimates, there are 60 reviews websites focused on healthcare in the U.S. alone. Since patients value responses to negative reviews, Sams recommends practices invest in dedicated software to keep up with all these platforms, and designate or hire a member of their staff to manage online reputation.

“It’s my job to monitor these review sites daily, identify trends and escalate a review or rating to the appropriate people when necessary,” she says.

Sams receives email and text alerts when a negative review comes in, allowing her to address any issues remotely in an efficient, organized manner.

She adds that Carilion Clinic will soon be using its patient feedback management software to launch patient satisfaction surveys, as well. This will enable her team to address patient concerns before they show up on an online reviews site.

Not every reviews website allows doctors to respond to negative comments. However, practices should consider writing a reply on the sites that do. By posting a courteous response that acknowledges the patient’s concerns, practices can show that they take feedback seriously and want to provide a better patient experience.

Here are some “do’s” and “don’ts” for doctors when crafting a response to a negative review:

Download Checklist

Quality of Care is Most Valuable Review Information

Now that we’ve shown the importance of online reviews, let’s take a closer look at what kind of information patients value most.

First, we asked what information patients tend to look for when they examine a doctor’s online reviews.

Patient rating scores—often represented by numerical values or star ratings on reviews sites—come in first place, at 28 percent. Next, 26 percent said they seek information about the quality of care provided. Information about the doctor’s background and experience is cited by 24 percent of respondents.

Digging deeper into the subject of care quality, we also asked respondents what they consider the most important information about delivery of care. The majority (26 percent) choose “accuracy of diagnosis,” followed by “listening skills” at 23 percent and “explanation skills” at 22 percent.

General: Most Important Reviews Information
Delivery of Care: Most Important Reviews Information

It’s both encouraging and unsurprising to see “quality of care” among the most important information on reviews sites. This is not only a priority for patients, but for government healthcare officials, as well.

A slow-but-steady shift is underway in the medical industry toward value-based care. In this model, provider pay is tied to the value and quality of care delivered, rather than the volume and frequency of services rendered.

Another finding that isn’t too surprising: Over a quarter of patients seek information about a doctor’s accuracy of diagnosis before any other kind of care-quality information on reviews sites.

According to a study by the Institute of Medicine, “most people will experience at least one diagnostic error in their lifetime, sometimes with devastating consequences.” Checking out online reviews appears to give patients some peace of mind about their chosen provider’s track record when it comes to diagnosing health issues.

Staff Friendliness, Ease of Scheduling Most Valuable Administrative Reviews Information

When we asked patients what kind of administrative information they value most on healthcare reviews sites, both staff friendliness and ease of scheduling appointments received 24 percent, followed by information about wait times (20 percent) and office environment and cleanliness (16 percent).

Most Important Administrative Reviews Information

This goes to show that online reviews aren’t solely focused on the delivery of care. Thus, it’s important for providers to consider a patient’s perspective beyond the exam room. The entire office must have a good bedside manner, lest doctors risk negative ratings from patients due to issues with staff outside their control.

“The person answering the phone, greeting a patient at the front desk or stamping a parking voucher is just as [important to] the patient experience as the physician,” says Sams. “It’s all connected, and patients expect a great experience overall.”

Practitioners should inform staff of simple ways to make patients feel welcome and comfortable. This might include thanking patients each time they call or visit, greeting them in a courteous manner and communicating wait times in advance.

Patients Focus on Positive Reviews, Disregard Implausible Ones

Finally, we wanted to discover the ultimate impact positive online reviews have on patients’ selection of doctors. We also wanted to explore what—if anything—could cause patients to disregard reviews.

Ninety-one percent of respondents would be at least “moderately likely” to choose one similarly qualified doctor over another based on positive reviews.

Clearly, patients are weighing positive reviews very heavily when selecting a provider.

Next, we asked under what circumstances respondents would be likely to disregard a negative review about a doctor. “Review seems exaggerated/hyperbolic” is selected by 31 percent of patients, followed closely by “author’s expectations seem unreasonable,” chosen by 30 percent.

Most Common Reasons for Disregarding Reviews
Likelihood of Choosing a Doctor Based on Positive Online Reviews

These results show patients are looking at reviews sites with a critical eye, and won’t automatically believe everything they see. This is great news for practitioners. After all, exaggerated and/or fake reviews do happen—especially since some reviews sites don’t require people to enter their names before posting.

If a provider suspects a review about them is fake, they should gather credible evidence (e.g., show the doctor’s office was closed on the day the reviewer claimed they received care), then contact the website administrator to see if it can be removed.

Thankfully, our data shows patients are most likely to focus on the positive when it comes to online reviews. Given this, medical practices should encourage patients to post reviews. Sams acknowledges this may not come naturally to every practitioner.

“Physicians are not salespeople,” she says, adding that a physician’s focus should first and foremost be on providing “great patient care.”

However, there are easy steps doctors can take to ask patients to rate them online. These include:

  • Adding clickable links to popular reviews sites to email signatures.
  • Adding clickable links to popular reviews sites to the practice’s website.
  • Using software to reach out to patients about reviews through social media or email.
  • Keeping a tablet at the front desk where patients can post reviews before leaving the office.

Conclusions

Our survey shows that medical practices must keep an eye on their existing online reviews. But providers should also be proactive about recruiting more, lest they miss opportunities to attract or retain patients.

When it comes to how patients use online reviews, most focus on writing and reading the positive stuff—so the reward eclipses the risk of occasional negative feedback.

Negative or fake reviews are still a concern. However, our data shows they are not as common as doctors may think, and can be mitigated by responding directly to the reviewer or contacting the reviews site.

Physicians interested in improving their online presence should consider taking the following steps:

  • Designate or hire a staff member to monitor and manage the online reviews presence of the practice at large as well as for individual physicians.
  • Keep the patient experience in mind from intake to diagnosis, making all communications courteous and clear along the way.

Methodology

To find the data in this report, we surveyed a total sample of 2,409 patients in the United States. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.

If you have comments or would like to obtain access to any of the charts above, please contact Lisa@softwareadvice.com. For more information, see our methodologies page.

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