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Online Reviews: What’s a Good Doctor to Do?

Thumbs DownHeathGrades, Vitals. ZocDoc, RateMDs are all part of the growing network of review sites who allow patients to publicly report on their medical outcomes and experiences.  While there is a genuine fear that negative reviews can harm a physician’s reputation, it is a growing trend in the U.S. for adults to consult these sites when making healthcare decisions.  No physician wants to read harsh reviews or spend time checking dozens of review sites, however there are some benefits for doctors who actively manage their online reputation.  The fact remains that patients will publicly report their own outcomes on review sites and social media in real time whether or not the doctor is listening.  For this reason alone, a physician’s online reputation should never be ignored.

In a Wall Street Journal article about online patient reviews (Doctors Check Online Ratings from Patients and Make Change), people were quoted as saying they saw reviews as being helpful in making decisions.  If reviews were non-existent the feeling was that the physician was not “keeping with the times.”   Regarding negative reviews, one patient stated, “The ones that are negative I always take with a grain of salt.”  He went on to say, “But if there’s a bunch of negative reviews, then OK, maybe something’s going on.”

This subjective reporting can be very beneficial to prospective patients and encourage open communication between existing patients and their doctors.  People doing research on the internet look for signs of trust and indicators beyond the Curriculum Vitae and awards.  In the past, many patients simply sought out word of mouth recommendations from family and neighbors.  Now they can check review sites and see what other patients have experienced.  The double-edge of this open communication is that negative experiences are instantly published.  But the news isn’t all bad.  Sometimes there is a gem of information that can help the physician.

Thumbs UpThey can help point out small changes that can greatly improve the patient’s experience.  In the Wall Street Journal article, one doctor Dr. Andrew Pasternak got some constructive criticism about his spending too much time writing notes on his tablet.  It had been something the Dr. Pasternak had already been working on and the review gave him more reason to change.  Afterwards a comment from another patient noted “His attentiveness has improved markedly and although the tablet is still there, it doesn’t dominate the appointment.”

Not everyone gives such valuable feedback with the occasional disgruntled employee or a patient who is upset about the doctor saying no to a questionable prescription request.  Still if there is a mix of good and bad reviews, most reasonable people will understand that every situation is different.  The problem arises when a bad review pops up and stays out on the internet with no response and no good reviews to balance it out.

The idea is to be proactive and encourage patients to do their reviews ongoing as a normal process of visiting the doctor. The majority of positive reviews will outweigh the occasional negative review.  With the staff keeping communication open by asking for reviews, it creates several opportunities to identify a potential problem early on and address it.

A Bad Review is Inevitable

Sooner or later a patient will be unhappy about tests or a doctor saying ‘no’ to a request for prescriptions.  Some stories of negative reviews involve ex-spouses and disgruntled employees.  For the most part, it will be someone who isn’t happy about their experience.  The way to handle any negative review is to acknowledge it; respond positively and publicly and follow up.

Acknowledge the person’s view and if possible on the same review site it was posted.  Something like this:  “We thank you for your feedback. It’s important to us to provide the best care to all of our patients.  Please call our office and ask for Sue so we can resolve this for you and the rest of our patients.”   If a public response is not possible, be sure to contact the patient directly if possible and resolve the matter.  In the meantime, continue to gather positive reviews and have the staff listen for potential problems that can be addressed immediately.

In the case of some sites, a negative review cannot be removed or the public response cannot be published.  This is when the power of a balanced viewpoint comes to light.  Having regular positive reviews ongoing will always shine a light on reviews that are false, unfair and negative.  The bottom line here is to remain positive in the response and not become defensive.

Change is Good for a Growing Practice

Online review sites all have their pros and cons, but at the end of the day they are a necessary part of most patient’s decision-making process.  Because of that, physicians need to implement a plan and manage their online reputation.  This may seem like more work initially, and it is.  The real benefit is that the increased positive reviews will also mean that the practice will grow as new patients get the chance to start building trust before they even enter the examination room.