Providers should think seriously about leveraging online reviews

In 2012, tension over online doctor reviews ran high. As the New York Times reported, physicians were turning to third-party reputation management firms who used legal threats to silence critical patients on the web. Information freedom non-profits and tech media outlets responded with investigations and an FTC complaint.

As a former practitioner, I sympathize with some doctors’ apprehension about online reviews; the desire to protect oneself from unfair or unwarranted criticism is all-too relatable. But patients have a right to talk about their experiences. Censorship also doesn’t work, especially in the age of the internet. Gag orders will not silence angry patients. Those patients will simply find ways to air their opinions anonymously, regardless of whether their grievances are legitimate.

And other patients will listen. According to Nielsen’s 2011 Global Trust in Advertising Survey, 70 percent of global consumers trust online reviews, making them the second-most trusted form of advertising. In a recent survey conducted by Search Engine Land, 72 percent of consumers said they give the same weight to online reviews that they do to personal recommendations. In other words, consumers rely heavily on online resources to make purchasing decisions – and healthcare consumers are no different.

The significance of this trend has not been lost on policymakers and other healthcare architects, who are working quickly to advance pay-for-performance healthcare models. Patient satisfaction, as measured through ratings and reviews, will soon be tied to compensation for employed doctors. In the independent setting, online reviews already affect income directly to the extent that potential new patients are attracted or repelled.

For patients to broadcast their opinions to the world – impacting physicians’ reputations and their wallets – is a major change, and perhaps alarming. But I believe that healthcare providers should actively support reviews for reasons beyond transparency and future-preparedness: reviews are meaningful and empowering for patients, and can be a valuable business driver.

As noted above, the majority of consumers give the same degree of credence to online reviews that they do to word of mouth. Consider for a moment this extraordinary development. The commentary of strangers online has become as important as the opinions of our friends, families, and colleagues. This is clearly an indicator of the public’s growing trust in the quality of information on the web. And there is every reason to believe the trend will continue, and that online reviews will soon eclipse word of mouth in their importance for patients.

Perhaps more than any other fact, this should convince providers to think seriously about leveraging online reviews. Preparing for the healthcare system’s inevitable drive toward transparency is not just a way for doctors to better serve their patients. It is a potential driver of new business that providers can use to remain viable and competitive in a shifting landscape.

“Win-win-win” solutions – which benefit practices, patients, and the healthcare system alike – are quite rare. When we find these treatments, we should implement them quickly, confidently, and without regret. This is the essence of good medicine.

Oliver Kharraz is chief operating officer and founder, ZocDoc.

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