Healthcare Extends Into the Online Community

Physicians struggle with online review management strategy

By Megan Headley

As the healthcare industry becomes more patient-centric, health systems are treating patients more like customers than ever. Facilities are offering hotel-like hospital rooms, concierge service, and patient satisfaction surveys, among other amenities. But as consumers take more control over where they seek healthcare, they’re using their social networks to spread the news about their preferred choices. The result is that physicians are now being tasked with protecting their reputations in the digital world.

In fact, a survey from practice growth platform PatientPop on the impact of online reputation among medical professionals finds reviews to now be the most influential online source of patient decision-making.

Are you scared yet?

Patients want to be heard

Healthcare has long enjoyed the privilege of securing its customers based on being the closest, or only, choice around. That’s all changing—fast. Yet, despite this shift, less than half (47.6%) of the respondents to PatientPop’s 2019 survey of healthcare providers seem to understand how to positively affect their online reputation as a means of attracting patients. Far more (76.1%) are concerned with patients sharing negative feedback.

They should be, if that helps encourage more practices to respond to it. Feedback is popping up among a handful of online sources, but predominantly it appears on Google (62%) and Yelp (50%). Yet in 2019, PatientPop reports, more than 56% of physician practices either don’t have a process to respond to patients or aren’t sure if they have one. Nearly one in five practices simply do not respond to negative feedback at all.

Marketing experts across virtually all other consumer-oriented industries note that ignoring a negative review can prove disastrous. Not responding sends the message that the practice doesn’t care about its customer service, which can sway the opinion of prospective clients. So, it’s particularly surprising that 52.4% of PatientPop’s survey participants who don’t respond report that they feel responding won’t make a difference to their reputation—the evidence overwhelmingly indicates otherwise.

As PatientPop puts it, “In nearly every case, a dissatisfied patient simply wants to know their concerns are heard.” Ignoring negative reviews confirms the fear that physicians aren’t listening. The numbers also speak: Survey results show that when providers respond to negative feedback, the rate of patient satisfaction doubles.

However, there is a more compelling reason that physicians don’t respond to online complaints. Nearly half of this survey’s respondents (46%) report that they’ve opted not to respond publicly to patient concerns because they are concerned about compromising HIPAA compliance.

That concern, at least, is a valid one. Experts with the Compliancy Group advise that practices not reply with or post information that might confirm a patient’s identity or even the fact that the individual may have had services. Even apologizing for the individual’s concerns could be enough to confirm that the person has received services from your facility. These experts advise simply thanking reviewers for their feedback and offering to take the conversation offline. Keeping it simple, and demonstrating openness to discussion, is all it takes to show prospective clients that a practice is prepared to listen to concerns.

Best practices for managing online reviews

Because many patients now rely largely on reviews for their decision-making around purchases, staying quiet isn’t necessarily the best strategy. Fortunately, there are things that practices can do to manage their online reviews.

  1. Ask for feedback. Unmanaged profiles often feature a laundry list of complaints as people with problems tend to reach out to get solutions. So, while it may seem counterintuitive, requesting positive online reviews will help create a better image of a practice. In fact, one 2019 study of patient online reviews found that physicians with higher ratings typically had a strong online presence.

Of course, lots of good reviews also can help practices move higher in search results by bolstering SEO rankings. Google confirms, “High-quality, positive reviews from your customers will improve your business’s visibility and increase the likelihood that a potential customer will visit your location.”

So, make it a habit to ask patients to offer a review, or hand out instructions explaining how to find the practice online and review it. The PatientPop survey indicates that patients who are asked to submit a review are 22% more likely to do so, and 60% who’ve posted a review share only good experiences.

  1. Assign responsibility for monitoring reviews. At least 25% of PatientPop survey respondents said they don’t have the time to manage online reviews. For those practices, there are reputation management software programs available that automate this work. Other practices might dedicate an individual fluent in HIPAA requirements to monitoring the practice’s online appearance. Companies can use Google to compile a list of sites where their company name appears and check them daily for negative comments that need a reply.
  2. Have a set response in place. Due to HIPAA requirements, practices will want to keep any replies to negative reviews short and vague. Prepare a few variations of this set response in advance to keep responses timely and trouble-free.
  3. Listen to the feedback you’re receiving. Online reviews will keep growing in importance, so consider incorporating the feedback you’re getting into your practice. While some reviewers simply are looking for a reason to complain, any consistency in complaints should be addressed to improve a potential blind spot in your customer service. Similarly, if you’re receiving nothing but positive reviews, celebrate that in your branding and marketing materials.

“Some physicians utilize online ratings as a feedback tool,” write the authors of “Online physician reviews: Is there a place for them?” in the May 2019 issue of Risk Management and Healthcare Policy. “Some physicians have addressed logistical issues in their office, including the way test results were distributed or how incoming mail was handled. Others have streamlined their appointment scheduling process in response to patient experiences. Some physicians have implemented patient reminders in their office infrastructure and adopted guidelines/treatment pathways in response to reviews.”

As the authors point out, all these factors can strengthen the patient experience and build trust with a health system’s patient population.

Be part of the community

While more physician practices are requesting feedback and putting processes in place to respond to customer reviews, there’s still lots of progress to be made, and it’s important that practices strive to make it. Studies have reported that up to 60% of people use web-based physician rating systems in choosing a physician, and the number of online ratings is only increasing.

While online reviews may not be a true indicator of practice quality, they are currently the most easily accessible guide for patients seeking to take greater control over their healthcare choices. Practices that want to extend their reach further into the community will find it critical to pay attention to what’s being said about them online.

Megan Headley is a freelance writer and owner of ClearStory Publications. She has covered healthcare safety and operations for numerous publications. Headley can be reached at