Be good to your patients and they’ll be good to you
In this edition of “The Wired Practice,” Ron Harman King of Vanguard Communications explains that both current and potential patients can form impressions about your practice from what they see in online reviews and provides suggestions on how to improve those first web-based impressions.
For all the debate about online patient reviews of doctors and whether they’re a good thing or bad thing, I ask, what physician doesn’t want patients’ praise on the internet? It’s only human to want to be acknowledged and thanked for good work, and the last time I checked, doctors were still classified as homo sapiens. Warm feelings aside, an old adage is that one happy customer can generate at least three new customers by word of mouth. Healthcare is no different. Patients are customers, too, and there is no medical practice that should avoid happy customers cheerleading for them on rate-your-doctor websites.
But is it unethical for a physician or practice to take an active involvement in improving online reviews? I say absolutely not, as long as it’s done within certain guidelines:
Don’t ask your mom to review your practice online
First, ask only real patients to post reviews. It’s disheartening to see medical groups resorting to the not altogether uncommon practice of review stuffing. By this, I mean the act of asking office staff, friends and even family to pose as patients online. Fake reviews are often easy to spot. They typically are long on adjectives and short on facts. The faux reviewer commonly says very little about her medical condition or the events of her doctor’s appointment. Instead she waxes on and on about her doctor’s greatness without evidence to support her opinion. Instead, the real goal should be to encourage happy patients to tell the truth in the right place.
Bribery is never a good idea
Second, be careful about how to ask for reviews. Don’t pressure or incentivize patients. For example, I advise against offering gift cards as a motivation. Bad idea. Such an act doesn’t pass the smell test and also jeopardizes the delicate physician-patient relationship. The best approach is simply to have providers AND staff ask patients who have ALREADY expressed thanks for their treatment to post the same sentiments online. Not all will comply, of course. But if you and your staff ask enough, you’ll get adequate response. And it doesn’t take many responses to tip the balance and dramatically improve online ratings.
Open your ears to complaints so you can address them
Third, offer patients constant feedback opportunities. Please, I ask you to listen carefully to this important proclamation: You WANT to hear from unhappy patients BEFORE they go public in hopes of resolving their grievances privately. It also gives your practice a chance to remedy broader problems that other patients may be experiencing. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of reputation. Make it easy for patients to compliment and complain. To an irritated patient, nothing’s more aggravating than having to answer a 12-page questionnaire just so she can get to HER one beef. Instead, my firm suggests placing a tablet computer at your check-out station for departing patients to complete an online satisfaction survey. Or staff can also distribute cards with web addresses for the survey and/or send post-appointment emails with links to the survey.
Respond to poor reviews head-on
Fourth, in the spirit of playing fairly, answer critical reviews publicly. To do this, you or a designee will have to do what’s called “claiming” your online identity on the review websites. For instructions, look for a button or link on each site and follow the prompts. And keep in mind that responses to online complaints don’t have to come from physicians but from someone in the practice. Regardless, answering harsh comments are less for the online critic individually and more for others reading the complainer’s review. Your first priority is to appear to everyone as open minded and open eared. Now, this gets a little tricky. For privacy reasons, take care to avoid any discussion of a single patient’s case or health conditions in your public responses. Avoid even any suggestion confirming the critic is a patient.
Instead, focus on three points: you’ve heard and welcome the input, the complainer’s described experience is generally not what your practice strives for, and you’d like the complainer to privately contact the practice in hopes of resolving the complaint. Note also that some rate-your-doctor websites permit you to respond privately to reviews, allowing you to discuss the situation more candidly. Whatever you do, do not get into an electronic spat with the complainer.
Additionally, you should feel free to talk about broad policies – such as what your practice is doing to reduce wait time for physicians or why doctors often require patients to make a follow-up appointment before getting a prescription refill.
Focus on top level customer service at your practice
Finally and most important, make sure your provider group delivers top-of-class customer service. I often take heat for saying this, but the harsh reality is that in the public mind, medicine is becoming a retail service – patients compare their experiences and level of service at doctors’ offices to that at restaurants, hotels, stores, automotive dealers, and resorts. It’s just plain inescapable. And years of experience and social media research at Vanguard finds repeatedly that medical practices with the worst service regularly get the worst online reviews. Be good to your patients in your offices and they will be good to you online.
One more note: Of course, some patients are simply beyond any reason and logic. As unfair as their protests may be, practices still should deal with them. From time to time, when you can present supporting documentation, you MAY be able to persuade a website publisher to remove egregiously untrue airings. But for the vast majority of cases, following these five guidelines should reap great rewards in reputation building.