Today, more patients than ever use online physician reviews to search for a doctor—and that number is only continuing to grow. In 2013, Software Advice published the results of a survey we conducted in an effort to learn more about how patients use online reviews. One year later, we’re revisiting the topic to see how patients’ use of online reviews has evolved, and what new conclusions can be drawn.
- The number of patients using online reviews jumped 68 percent from 2013 to 2014.
- Nearly half of respondents would go out-of-network for a doctor that has more favorable reviews.
- Yelp is the most popular online review site (27 percent), but ties with HealthGrades for most trusted.
More Patients Using Online Reviews in 2014
One of the most important findings from our survey is that significantly more patients are using online reviews. In 2013, we found that just 25 percent of respondents said they used online reviews. A 2012 survey by Dr. David Hanauer at the University of Michigan, meanwhile, found that just 22 percent said they had used online reviews once or more.
In 2014, however, this percentage jumped to 42 percent—marking a 68 percent increase from 2013. The degree to which patients use these reviews varies, however: 24 percent reported using them “often” or “sometimes,” while 18 percent reported using them “rarely.”
Patients’ Frequency of Using Review Sites
Good Reviews Nearly as Important as Being In-Network
In addition to a significant jump in the number of patients using online reviews, another statistic that points to the growing importance of reviews sites is that nearly half of respondents (44 percent) said they would consider going to an out-of-network doctor if their reviews were better than those of in-network doctors.
Willingness to Go Out-of-Network Based on Reviews
This is a significant change from 2013, when just 26 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to go out-of-network because of more favorable reviews. The shift in patient sentiment here seems to reflect a growing reliance on online physician reviews over other factors when selecting a healthcare provider.
Consulting an out-of-network doctor is no small inconvenience to a patient, either through increased out-of-pocket expenses, time and effort required to change insurance providers or general uncertainty about fees and coverage. As such, the fact that nearly half of respondents would consider such a change based on reviews speaks to just how big of a role such reviews can play in a patient’s decision.
As Dr. Hanauer notes, “In many ways, the longer reviews remain on reviews sites and the more people leave them, the more ‘valuable’ they become as an information asset.”
Yelp Is Most Used Site; Healthgrades and RateMDs a Close Second
Next, we wanted to learn which websites respondents use most frequently to leave or consult reviews. Yelp secured the top spot, used by 27 percent of respondents, while Healthgrades and RateMDs each came in at 26 percent.
Most Used Review Sites
It’s important to note that, while Rate MDs was not included as a choice in our 2013 survey, it makes a strong showing in 2014. In fact, this year’s results are marked by increased parity among the top three online review sites, which collectively account for 79 percent of respondents’ choices.
This data suggests that doctors who diversify their online presence and list themselves on multiple sites may have an advantage over their colleagues in both attracting new patients and retaining existing ones.
As Dr. Tara Lagu of Baystate Medical Center notes, “Online patient-generated content is here to stay—so we might as well use it to make ourselves better doctors. I recommend physicians encourage their patients to leave reviews and regularly examine their ‘digital footprint’ as part of maintaining their online reputation.”
Yelp and Healthgrades Are Most Trusted Reviews Sites
In 2013, Yelp was overwhelmingly the most trusted site for online physician reviews, at 44 percent. This year, however, Healthgrades has pulled even with Yelp, with both sites accounting for 26 percent of respondents.
As previously noted, Rate MDs was not included in last year’s survey. In 2014, however, 24 percent believe it to be the most trustworthy site.
Most Trusted Review Sites
According to Hanauer, many patients are hesitant to trust the reviews they read online because such a small percentage of patients leave reviews. “The anonymous nature of [reviews] also makes it hard to know who left the ratings or to understand their underlying motivations,” he adds.
While anonymity with respect to physician reviews is and will likely remain a reality due to privacy concerns, increasing the percentage of patients who write reviews can significantly impact the perceived trustworthiness of those reviews. Hanauer’s study, for example, found that just 5 percent of patients leave physician reviews online, meaning there is significant room for improvement in this area.
Most Patients Use Online Reviews Prior to Choosing Physician
Next, we wanted to learn when patients are most likely to use online reviews. Our survey found that the majority (61 percent) use them prior to choosing a doctor. However, a slightly greater percentage of patients in 2014—20 percent, up from 19 percent in 2013—say they use online reviews to evaluate their current doctor.
When Patients Use Online Reviews
While this finding may or may not indicate a trend towards greater reevaluation of current physicians, we do know the current healthcare climate is more patient-centric today, with a greater emphasis on the patient as consumer. As such, it would make sense that more patients are using reviews not only to evaluate new doctors, but also as a barometer to gauge the quality of their existing care.
Doctors should be aware that both current and new patients may be using reviews to evaluate their performance, and thus having a positive online presence on review sites is a step toward not just attracting patients, but retaining them.
Quality of Care Remains Most Valuable Information
The increasing importance of online reviews correlates with another trend: for the second year, quality of care is the information patients value most, cited by 48 percent of respondents. In second place is patient rating scores, cited by 45 percent of respondents, followed closely by the overall patient experience, at 40 percent.
Less important information to respondents included practice demographics and the appearance of the doctor’s office, which were cited by 25 and 11 percent, respectively.
Most Sought-After Information (General)
To benefit most from this data, doctors should consider encouraging patients to rate the quality of care they receive. This can be done by sending patients email reminders with a link to the physician’s online profiles asking them to leave a review. There are also reputation management services, such as MyPracticeReputation that advise physicians on strategies to improve their online presence.
Ultimately, however, the best way to ensure good reviews is for doctors to think of patients as consumers. Patients can, and will, choose the healthcare provider that appeals to them most, which means doctors must strive to provide the best care possible to win their business.
Accuracy of Diagnosis Most Important Delivery of Care Information
When it comes to what delivery of care information patients value most in reviews, this year’s results were very similar to 2013: accurate diagnoses (34 percent) and a doctor’s listening skills (22 percent) took the top two spots.
Most Sought-After Information (Delivery of Care)
Due to the exorbitant costs of healthcare today, an inaccurate diagnosis can have extremely negative effects on a patient’s finances and cause tremendous undue stress and mental anguish. As such, it’s not surprising that an accurate diagnosis ranks most highly.
Similarly, good listening and communication skills have long been a crucial element of effective healthcare, so much so that bedside manner has been a focus of the of practice good medicine since the classical world. In fact, some suggest that the quality of the doctor-patient relationship has a direct effect on patients’ health, as improving communication skills can lead to a better understanding of a patient’s well-being, thus increasing the accuracy of diagnoses and improving overall health.
In terms of administrative information, 25 percent of respondents cited wait times as most important, which was likewise the most sought-after information in 2013. This isn’t surprising; as prior Software Advice research found that 41 percent would consider switching doctors if it meant reduced wait times.
Staff friendliness came in second, at 22 percent, while ease of scheduling and billing/payment issues came in at 19 and 16 percent, respectively. These results suggest that, as the notion of patients as consumers continues to proliferate, customer service is, and will continue to become, more important.
Most Sought-After Information (Administrative)
Most Reviewers Share Positive or Neutral Reviews
A common concern among physicians is exposing themselves to scrutiny or negative reviews online. According to Hanauer, “The concern is that the negative reviews are probably disproportionate to the number of negative experiences patients have. Even if ‘only’ 19 percent of online reviews are negative, we as clinicians would hope that far fewer than one out of five patients had a negative experience.”
Yet, when asked what kind of review they typically write about their doctor, patients’ responses were quite different than what one might expect: 43 percent of respondents say they usually write something positive, while another 28 percent say their responses tend to be neutral.
Type of Review Patients Typically Write
As it turns out, others have found a similar trend in online reviews of physicians, and the University of Michigan study found that 81 percent of respondents typically gave positive or neutral reviews of doctors online. In each of these surveys, it’s clear that patients generally tend to focus on the positive aspects of care over negative experiences.
As further evidence, one only has to look at the motivations of patients writing reviews. In our survey, 32 percent of respondents cited helping other patients, while 30 percent said sharing a positive experience was their primary incentive for leaving a review.
Patients’ Top Motivation for Writing Reviews
Patients Focus on Positive When Choosing Doctors
In addition to reviews being largely positively motivated, we found that those who use reviews to choose a doctor overwhelmingly use positive reviews when making a decision: 85 percent of respondents said they’d be at least “moderately likely” to choose one doctor over another based on positive reviews. This indicates patients actively seek out positive healthcare experiences, rather than merely avoiding negative ones.
Likelihood of Choosing a Doctor Based on Positive Reviews
Our data also suggests that patients reading reviews are savvy enough to ignore what they consider “exaggerated” reviews. In fact, 34 percent cited “exaggerated reviews” as the primary reason for disregarding a review—more so than any other reason—indicating that patients are perceptive about negative reviews, and can tell a valid complaint from an overreaction.
Most Common Reasons for Disregarding Reviews
This information should allay physician fears regarding negative reviews. Reviews tend to be positively motivated and interpreted, and thus, proactively encouraging patients to leave good reviews is far more a benefit than a risk.
Should a negative review appear, however, Lagu suggests that physicians “respond if possible, make improvements when possible and remember that most Internet users are savvy and consider online content with caution and in the context of other reviews.” She adds, ”The best response to a negative review is the presence of many more positive reviews from other patients.”
Our survey findings indicate that having online profiles and positive patient reviews is not only desirable for physicians, but may soon become a necessity to attract and retain patients, particularly as the healthcare arena becomes increasingly patient-centric.
Physicians should also keep in mind that negative reviews are not nearly as prevalent as many think. Those that do occur, however, should be responded to very carefully in order to protect patient anonymity (and remain in compliance with HIPAA). Most reviews are positively motivated, so focusing on increasing the quality of care via improved diagnostic accuracy and listening skills is, according to our data, the best way to ensure a greater number of positive reviews.
To find the data in this report, we surveyed a sample of 4,620 patients in the United States, collecting a minimum of 385 responses for each question. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.
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