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How Providers Can Address Online Physician Reviews, Social Media

More patients are using online physician reviews and social media to express their overall healthcare experience.

Source: Thinkstock

Online physician reviews are growing in popularity, with more patients leveraging different social media platforms to express their healthcare experience and learn more about their provider options. Based upon their social media management strategies, providers can make or break their online reputations by way of an increased online presence.

Patients are flocking to Yelp, the website famous for leaving restaurant reviews, to rate their doctors, and may use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to discuss their experiences with friends. Medical-specific websites, such as Healthgrades, Vitals, and ZocDoc, have also emerged to offer more targeted and relevant views of patient satisfaction.

Some organizations have also developed their own online review services hosted on their individual websites. Separate from CAHPS surveys, these websites serve as a platform for patients to comment just as they would on Yelp or Healthgrades. Practice-managed review sites appeal to practices and hospitals because they keep patient comments within the organization’s control.

However, as the adage goes, everything on the internet is permanent. With healthcare consumerism on the rise, clinicians and hospital leaders are becoming concerned about tarnished reputations posted to online provider review websites.

To prevent and manage potential negative reviews – and use positive reviews advantageously – healthcare organizations must first understand the power these tools have. Organizational leaders can then develop their own management plans by understanding the typical protocol surrounding online reviews and assessing the way patients value reviews.

Popularity doesn’t equal accuracy on the internet

More patients than ever are using online provider review websites. In 2015, nearly one-third of patients were leaving online provider review comments, up from one-quarter of patients in 2012, according to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

A separate survey from Software Advice in 2016 found that 59 percent of patients look at these reviews at least sometimes. Seventy-seven percent of patients use these reviews prior to making a treatment decision.

Patients place a lot of value on online provider reviews, especially reviews that are independent of provider organizations and hospitals. The Journal of General Internal Medicine study found that patients perceive reviews on Yelp or Healthgrades as more credible than those posted on a provider website.

Conversely, providers find more value in reviews collected and vetted by their parent organizations. The study also found that nearly 75 percent of providers find online reviews stressful and think they put a strain on the patient-provider relationship.

Although patients certainly value the insights offered in online reviews, there is little conclusive evidence that these reviews accurately measure quality care.

A 2017 analysis of Yelp reviews and clinical quality measures (preventable readmissions and mortality) showed that Yelp is an indicator of hospital quality. The analysis revealed a strong positive relationship between high Yelp ratings and low preventable readmissions.

In contrast, a separate study showed that online provider reviews are not always reliable. The investigation looked at reviews on different platforms – Healthgrades, Vitals, and Ratemds – and found the reviews are not always consistent. A positive review on Ratemds does not necessarily mean there will be positive reviews on Vitals. This suggests that online provider review websites cannot always be trusted to indicate clinical quality.

Although both studies yielded different findings, they both acknowledged that more research is required to assess the credibility of online provider reviews. Online review websites are in their infancy, and therefore claims about their credibility are not yet conclusive.

That is not to say that healthcare organizations should not take these reviews seriously. First, reviews – whether left on Yelp or a provider website – do give insight into at least one patient’s experience and may help shape improvement efforts.

Second, online reviews contribute to the online presence most healthcare organizations are cultivating. Providers must respect these reviews to manage their online reputations.

Source: Thinkstock

Managing online provider reviews

Regardless of whether doctors value or enjoy these public forums, online provider reviews are likely not going away.

Developing an online reputation management strategy can help organizational leaders deliver actionable advice for clinicians who may need to ramp up their patient experience efforts. These strategies often help providers maintain a more positive digital presence.

At Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System, the number one rule for engaging with online reviews is that providers should not respond to comments on their own, according to the system’s Senior Physician Development Consultant Mary Reid, RN, BSN.

“We don’t want the doctor going onto the social media sites and responding right there,” Reid said to PatientEngagementHIT.com. “We handle that in marketing, which is why we have someone looking at the sites at all times. We want that marketing staffer to catch those before anyone else would.”

Instead, Reid and her team are the first to triage negative comments. They then pass those comments down the appropriate chain of command.

From there, department leaders and marketing staff frame the criticism in a positive light, stating that it is an opportunity for improvement.

“We’re positive when we show them that negative comment,” she explained. “We don’t just say, ‘you are bad and don’t do this.’ We show it all in a positive way and say, ‘let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again.’”

It can be difficult to capture all reviews, especially as patients express their opinions on multiple forums. Patients may be using Facebook, Twitter, and Google to leave comments in addition to voicing their opinions on targeted healthcare websites, which can leave consumer relations experts with too many sites to browse each day.  

Miami Children’s Health System’s Web Marketing Director Robert Prieto employed aggregation software to help him keep up with the influx of comments.

“We could get control on Yelp and get notifications whenever that happens, but we were finding it was happening on Yelp, on Vitals, on Google,” Prieto said.

“It was all over the place,” he continued. “It was a little out of control trying to aggregate all of this feedback we were getting that was important to read and categorize and send off to administrative stakeholders.”

Prieto and his team were able to triage certain patient comments because they received all of their online reviews on a single platform. If a patient had a specific actionable problem, Prieto and other hospital staff could address it immediately.

The team was also able to determine if a comment was credible using the software, overcoming one significant challenge many hospitals are facing with online reviews. Viewing the comment source and redirecting the commenter toward the proper channels helped Prieto weed out unviable comments and tackle the more actionable ones.

Using social media to drive online presence

Healthcare consumers are increasingly expecting their providers to maintain an accessible, effective online presence.

At the very least, healthcare organizations of all sizes should maintain a practice website where patients can learn about treatment offerings, obtain directions to facilities, find staff biographies and credentials, and seek other pertinent information. These websites also often include a link to the online patient portal.

Healthcare organizations are also dipping their toes in the waters of social media in order to reach patients during their everyday activities. Between Facebook and Twitter profiles, entities are using new methods for connecting with their patients.

“Physicians and their respective organizations are moving in droves to reach their patients through phone, computer, tweeting, texting, and posting,” HIMSS explained on its website.

These digital platforms can help drive health literacy for patients, the organization contended.

“[Physicians] can discuss the importance of vaccinations,” HIMSS suggested. “They can raise consumer awareness about healthy habits. Physicians are called to serve their community through their insights delivered in a blog post, video, or other mediums.”

Wake Forest Baptist recently tapped into social media as a part of its patient education and marketing efforts, according to Vice President of Marketing Jeff House.

“Our main goals in the marketing department and in our communications are really to educate consumers,” he explained.

“There’s a real mission at this organization to improve the healthcare of our market and of our patients and a big part of that comes from simply educating them about the diseases, the disorders, the conditions, the symptoms, the signs, as well as the options they have available to them.”

While social media and a strong digital presence can improve patient outreach, healthcare professionals must remain mindful of patient privacy. HIPAA regulations still apply to these new media, so protected health information (PHI) and other individual health cases should never be discussed on unauthorized channels.

Instead, all online platforms should be treated as completely public, even if clinicians and hospital leaders are communicating via a direct message. There is a credible risk with social media sites because healthcare organizations may be unaware of the level of encryption and technical safeguards being utilized.

Social media is far better suited for public health campaigns and general wellness messages. Encouragement to receive a flu shot or alerting patients about a new MRI machine, for example, are positive and effective uses for social media.

Social media and online review websites are becoming formative players in healthcare. Not only do they have the power to drive organizational marketing, but they can also illuminate important opportunities for provider improvement.

The healthcare industry is still determining how to best manage social media in healthcare, especially online provider reviews. However, that does not mean these channels should not be ignored.

Practice and hospital leaders must understand that social media and review websites are important tools for patients and use that knowledge to develop a plan for creating a positive online presence across the organization.

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