How first impressions online affect patient acquisition and hospital revenue

There are few things consumers don't research before making purchasing decisions. Just as they do when choosing a hotel, airline or restaurant, prospective patients seeking new providers often turn to the web to inform their decision, tapping company websites, third-party rating sites and online reviews.

Research shows 77 percent of patients conduct an online search before making an appointment with a physician, meaning most prospective patients' first impression of a provider or healthcare organization occurs online, before they even step foot inside the facility. Consequently, the need for organizations to grow their online presence, optimize their brand and provide accurate information that can positively influence consumers is clear.

The cost of inaction and a negative first impression online is too high to ignore, Carrie Liken, head of industry, healthcare at global location data management company Yext, said during a webinar sponsored by the company and hosted by Becker's Hospital Review.

For example, outdated or incorrect location information online could cause a patient to get lost and miss his or her appointment. If this is a recurring problem for a provider, the cost of no-shows can reach tens of thousands of dollars per year. Such incidents are not only a drain on an organization's finances, they are also a significant source of frustration and dissatisfaction for patients. The effect of this is three-fold. Patients are likely to switch providers, leave a negative review online and ultimately dissuade others from seeking care there.

In a highly competitive market, "competition is a click away with online reviews," Andrew Rainey, executive vice president of strategy at Binary Fountain, said during the webinar. Yext and Binary Fountain, a patient feedback management solutions provider, established a partnership in October. According to Mr. Rainey, 47 percent of patients are willing to go out of network based on reviews. "When doctors are missing star ratings and reviews, more than 50 percent of people searching for doctors will not choose those providers," he added.

Understanding patients' online behavior 

A patient's online journey when seeking a provider typically starts with a symptom — the patient will turn to a search engine, such as Google, Bing or Yahoo, or they might turn to a medical website, such as WebMD, for information on what they're feeling. "The patient will decide if he or she needs treatment," said Ms. Liken. "From these searches, they might discover physicians who treat those symptoms."

The next step in the journey is selection. Patients use provider information available online to vet potential physicians and decide with whom to schedule an appointment. The most important types of information patients want to know is whether a physician accepts their insurance, how highly he or she is rated, where he or she is located and what other patients say about him or her in their reviews.

The third step is the point of care. "The patient experience is no longer just about health outcomes," said Mr. Rainey. "There are many subcomponents that need to be understood and measured." For example, the friendliness of staff, wait times, convenience of parking and food selection can have a substantial influence on the overall patient experience, even though these things aren't directly related to medical care.

The final step is feedback. Patients' online reviews — whether negative or positive — are out there for the world to see, and their effect on other prospective patients' provider selection process should not be underestimated. "Online reviews are no different than posting something on a billboard for millions of people to see," said Mr. Rainey.

It is important to understand that this journey is cyclical. Patients' experiences and the reviews they publish for others to read have far-reaching effects on patient acquisition because they continue to influence others as more people come across them during their own research. Therefore, it's imperative for healthcare organizations to ensure they are providing all of the information patients seek online, lest they risk losing out to competitors.

Develop your patient acquisition strategy

There are three components of online patient acquisition, according to Ms. Liken and Mr. Rainey: Own, influence, and maintain and optimize.

1. Own. Healthcare organizations must own their brand and provider brands on and off their owned online properties. This means it's important to ensure all of the information that points consumers back to the health system is accurate not only on the organization's website, but across key publisher sites as well.

Patients most often use search engines (such as Google, Bing and Yahoo), maps (such as Google Maps and Apple Maps), social media (such as Facebook, Instagram, Foursquare and Twitter) and review sites (such as Yelp, Vitals, Wellness.com, Healthgrades, RateMDs and others), when searching for information. Information listed on all of these — location, insurance types, whether a provider is taking new patients — should be up to date and consistent. 

2. Influence. Many healthcare organizations have expanded their priorities from simply growing their online and social media presence to actually engaging with patients and consumers on various platforms. Providers should be constantly aggregating and monitoring their online reviews. Although they cannot do anything to completely eliminate negative reviews and ratings, health systems can engage with patients to understand what caused a poor experience, publicize the fact that they're addressing it and improve.

"This is about taking these comments as what they are — legitimate, online patient experiences," said Mr. Rainey. "If you're able to respond back to the individual, treat it no differently than if you were talking to them face to face."

Mr. Rainey said a public-facing, online response that others can see helps reinforce the trust that may have been damaged or lost as the result of a poor patient experience. He recommends writing a general response to avoid violating HIPAA, but to include a contact number or email address for the patient to discuss their issue with someone from the organization at greater length.

3. Maintain and optimize. The work isn't over once a healthcare organization does the necessary legwork to update its online information. "It's not one and done," said Ms. Liken. "It's important that you're monitoring this and making sure location and other information is always accurate." Physicians join and leave organizations all the time, or might move between facilities within a health system. It's important to keep up with this movement and update online information accordingly.

Maintenance of information is also important for when health systems acquire other organizations or undergo a rebranding. There is more to update than just updating logos and signage, Ms. Liken said.

To watch the presentation on YouTube, click here.

To download the presentation as a PDF, click here.

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