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Image via Creative Commons, JasonHowie’s Flickr photostream. (source)

If you’ve practiced medicine for more than 10 years, you’ve witnessed some of the most dramatic periods of change in healthcare. There have been breakthroughs in medical technology and dramatic changes in policy, but the greatest shift of all is in how patients are making decisions about their care.

As high-deductible health plans proliferate, patients are paying more out of pocket than ever before, and this has profoundly influenced their behavior. Patients want to know that they are getting the absolute best care for their dollar, and they are turning to the web to inform their decision making. More than 100 million patients now search for doctors online1, and 61 percent read online patient reviews before booking an appointment2. Fifty percent of patients say good reviews encourage them to select a doctor, while 72 percent say bad reviews prevent them from picking that doctor3.

Needless to say, it is now more important than ever to build and maintain a strong online reputation for your practice.

One bad, hostile online review can undermine a professional practice that took decades to build. Protecting and maximizing your online reputation is not just about attracting new patients. It is also about protecting your business assets and future earning potential. Thankfully, there are steps you can take today to manage your online presence and maximize your reputation.

 

Understanding search engines & their impact on your reputation

Every time a person reads about you online, it is an opportunity to tell your story. It is also a chance for you to build a strong personal brand. First, you need to provide accurate and consistent information about your practice across the web. Then, you need to highlight your unique approach and expertise through rich and engaging content.

Like everything online, it all starts with the search. Search engines like Google have unique algorithms that attempt to show patients the best providers in a given geographic area. These algorithms attempt to simulate—with computer code—the “signals” patients may look for when trying to find the best doctor for their needs. There are more than 200 data points that Google considers in its algorithm.

To rank at the top of the first page results of a search, search engines look for online signs of a vibrant, healthy practice. One of the best indicators is the simplest: a well run, well-managed practice—it is assumed—will have highly accurate and consistent Business Name, Provider Name(s), Street Address, and Phone numbers published online. A poorly run practice, or a practice that’s out of business, will have inconsistent and out of date phone numbers.

Most search engines analyze your practice’s listing on 50 to 100 local business and healthcare directories, checking for this essential signal of uniformity, accuracy and consistency. If you have it, you’re bumped up in search rank. If not, you fall to the back of the pack. (Fortunately, our company and others have automated tools to document your consistency…or lack of it…and monitor your citations for changes that can harm your search rank.)

Next, search engines like to see that the practice’s address and phone number are verified. Verification of your business listing on the Google My Business platform takes only five minutes and is free. It is probably the #1 step you can take right now to firm up your practice’s standing among the major search engines.

Verification is important since it allows you to monitor—and respond—when patients leave you a review. If your business listing is not verified, you won’t know about a review for weeks and you can’t defend yourself!

Finally, search engines take note of the content of your listings on directory sites. They can detect the same things that humans notice: the quality of your content, inclusion of photos, as well as, the sentiment and frequency of patient reviews.

 

Directory listings

Directory listings are not just for search engines, they are also a phenomenal opportunity to showcase your personal brand and attract the type of patients most valuable to your practice. Start by claiming your listings and adding a compelling biography. Just don’t make the all-too-common mistake of copying and pasting a boring boilerplate biography.

Instead, use this an opportunity to speak to patients in your own voice and be sure to underscore your unique areas of expertise, as well as any noteworthy capabilities offered by your practice. Many directories will also allow you to list educational credentials, awards, and fellowships, as well as professional certifications and published papers. Take advantage of this feature and use these sections to reinforce your expertise. This is not the time to be modest. Patients absolutely want to see the most accomplished providers. If you don’t tell them, who will?

A recent study also found that directory listings with photos are 2-3x more likely to be clicked than those without. So don’t be that anonymous silhouette character you see on unclaimed, unedited online profiles. Let your character shine through with a great photo.

 

Measuring & managing your reviews

Several recent surveys of online behavior indicate that two-thirds of patients need to see at least 10 online reviews before they’ll believe any of them. And they won’t call you unless you have a minimum of a four-star average rating. Anything less and the patient will move on to the next provider.

It gets worse. By the time a review is 12 months old, 76 percent of those surveyed felt it had lost some of its credibility. Managing online reviews is not a one-time task. To achieve a winning reputation online, you must ensure that your patients continuously add positive reviews.

The occasional bad review is not a huge problem. Most patients are open minded and will dismiss a crank. In fact, the rare bad review also adds some credibility to the validity of the positive reviews. Think about it: what would you trust more: 100 glowing, fawning reviews or 95 great reviews and a few bombs?

Sometimes, how you deal with a bad review is more important than the review itself. Again, it comes down to perception. If the reviewer is irate but her issue is solvable, try first to contact the patient and settle the matter privately. Using diplomacy to earn a retraction will be well worth any small concession. It’s important: patients have indicated that one bad review in 10 is enough to make the patient avoid calling a doctor.

A bad review that is implacable is harder. Again, the general public can quickly see through overheated rhetoric. In these cases, your calm, reasonable public response is your best weapon. This is a battle for your credibility: having a logical, timely and caring online response to an angry customer can make you look like the hero. Just be careful not to mention any specifics about the patient’s care. You do not want to accidentally disclose information that could be considered “protected” under HIPPA.

This is the number one reason why you need to closely monitor your online presence, especially for websites that solicit and publish customer reviews. Ignorance of a bad review—especially one that could have been fixed by a timely reply—is the worst offense.

But what can you do about that really nasty review? The disparaging blog post that stays stubbornly on page one of your search results? The militant patient that won’t be swayed by diplomacy?

Online reputation management services all work by giving search engines more compelling, information that ‘drown out’ the occasional bad review. If a search engine detects dozens of highly credible bits of information about you and your practice, that information will be displayed BEFORE a solitary bad review.

One proven technique to push stubborn negative content off the first page of results is to saturate search results with content you can control. You can do this by creating profiles on authority web sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube, and even lesser known but frequently-ranked sites like About.me, SoundCloud, SlideShare and dozens of others.

This is, of course, in addition to your properly claimed and curated listings on all the main healthcare directories such as Wellness.com, Healthgrades.com and Vitals.com, and all the local business directories important to your town or city.

All of these profiles must be highly consistent with your existing information, so search engines will properly recognize you and your specific practice.

The net effect of this effort is to counterbalance the single or occasional negative opinion with a wide range of positive, authoritative facts. Over time, that negative result tends to drop in search rank to page 3 or 4 of search results…where it will rarely be seen.

 

Perfecting the patient experience

It may seem obvious but none of these reputational online management tools matter if your patients do not have a positive experience. Surveys of patient behavior show that, unless they’re feeling exceptionally delighted, they are unlikely to be motivated to write a review. They tend to leave reviews when they have had a really good experience or a really bad one.

So, how do you deliver service that makes the patient feel indebted to give you a great review? You need to consider the patient’s point of view and their entire experience.

The patient’s relationship with you starts with the online search and continues with the in-bound call experience and the appointment request. Was your receptionist clear and friendly or rude and inefficient? Was it easy to make an appointment? Did your patient get clear instructions to prepare for the visit or was the process haphazard? Is your waiting room clean and well organized? If you presented a treatment plan, did the patient feel empowered to make an informed decision or did he or she feel pressured into something that they did not really understand?

It is essential that you evaluate all aspects of your practice from the patient’s point of view. If you truly delight your patients, you will be far more likely to get those positive online reviews.

 

Putting it all together: Not just marketing

Warren Buffet once said, “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Reputation management in healthcare is not just a marketing tool to get more patients. It is an essential function of a successful practice, a predictor of your future earnings. The health industry continues to trend towards outcomes-based incentives, with patient feedback playing an ever more prominent role in the overall assessment of an episode of care. A good reputation can influence everything from attracting new employees and new partners, to getting better deals from hospitals and insurance companies.

Ultimately, your online reputation comes down to three elements: great looking; consistent directory listings and positive online reviews; and a strong patient experience.

By taking charge of online listings and content in a systematic way, you’ll provide search engines with the data they need to push your practice to the top of search results. By asking patients to give you reviews—and delighting them with an exceptional patient experience—you can boost, dramatically, the number and quality of your reviews.

You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do, so start building and managing your reputation today!

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