The growing impact of online physician reviews & referrals

Technology is advancing not only the practice of medicine, but the way in which patients seek healthcare providers and assess their experience as patients. The internet is changing the dynamics of healthcare.

The “information superhighway” is the ultimate resource for consumers to conduct research on virtually any topic. Considering the importance of healthcare, it’s no surprise the public is going online with increasing frequency to find more information about their specific medical need and the healthcare professionals available to assist them.

“Patients are a lot more independent these days,” said Dr. Drew Dylewski of Texas Regional Urology. “Referrals from a primary care physician are important, but a lot of people are taking it into their own hands to do research on their condition and the options they have for treatment.”

Ease of access is a big factor in the increased use of the internet. Patients with smart phones and home computers are empowered to go online to find out detailed information about a prospective doctor or medical practice. Many check the growing number of online review sites to see what others are saying about a physician they are considering.

WebMD and other sites have become important resources for those seeking a new doctor. A recent survey by “Software Advice,” a trade publication specializing in digital technology, reported 25 percent of patients use the internet to find a new physician or specialist. It’s a trend that is growing.

“Word of mouth and personal referrals are our biggest source of new patients,” said Dr. Michael Streitmann, a board certified plastic surgeon. “But there is no doubt the internet is a growing resource people are using.”

The strongest interest in the internet to evaluate physicians is among patients younger than 45 years, said Streitmann. Online reviews help prospective patients assess the capabilities of the physician they are considering. Patients are interested in quality of care; accuracy of diagnosis; experience and certifications; wait times; existing patient ratings and even aesthetic issues like photos of physician’s office and staff.

“We also put our forms online so patients can fill out their paperwork in advance,” noted Streitmann. “Proving map links helps patients see exactly how to get to our office.”

Family practice physician Dr. Peter Bigler acknowledges increased interest in internet marketing, but says most of his new patients come from traditional word of mouth. He sees web as an important resource for providing basic information about his services, but does not feel it is the most important aspect in establishing a successful practice.

“An established doctor with a successful practice doesn’t have to worry as much about marketing on the internet,” said Bigler. “For a doctor starting out, it has more benefits.”

While a growing number of patients are using the internet for research, only an estimated 10 percent are actually posting reviews on the major websites, according to the industry study. Some physicians are recognizing the potential benefit of increased exposure and encouraging their patients to post reviews, offering a variety of incentives as motivation.

While Dylewski said his practice does not actively promote online reviews from patients, he acknowledged that physicians are increasingly responsible for their digital footprint.

That’s important because the internet continues to grow as a resource for those seeking information about healthcare professionals. More than a quarter of survey responders said they would be willing to go “out of network” for a physician based on favorable information from internet websites and online referrals.

But Bigler points out there is a dark side to online reviews. Many satisfied patients do not take the time to go online and post favorable comments. A few patients, frustrated by any number of things − both real and imagined − might post negative comments. Responding to negative comments is difficult and those comments can negatively impact a potential patient’s selection process.

Online resources are especially important for elective and specialized healthcare services, said Streitmann. A referral by a primary care physician is important, but consumers are increasingly interested in third-party recommendations available via the internet.

But while few doubt the growing power and importance of the internet to influence patient selection, Streitmann noted that there are professional considerations.

“Doctors need to check with their professional societies and Texas regulations to find out what they can and cannot do over the internet,” he said. “There are frequent violations of Texas laws about personal testimonials, for example, that can lead to fines.”

That’s another reason online review sites can benefit physicians − they provide independent validation about a physician and his practice. Of the numerous review sites, Yelp and HealthGrades are the most used and respected, according to the industry survey.

“The impact of the internet on the healthcare field − like every industry − has grown dramatically in the past decade,” said Streitmann. “That’s not going to change. The internet is going to have a major impact on how patients select their doctors.”