In a world where most things can be bought online, healthcare remains one of the last remaining industries that mostly happen offline. Telemedicine exists, but most people still go to an actual doctor's office for their health needs. Though many doctors will get new patients as a result of being a part of health network or through referrals from other doctors, a new report suggests that it's important for healthcare providers to have a strong online presence.

Though patients will eventually meet their doctor face to face, their search for the right provider often starts on the internet. A survey of more than 1,700 U.S. adults found the four out of five (80 percent) respondents have used the internet to make a healthcare-related search in the past year. The survey, which was commissioned by Doctors.com, also revealed that three in five (63 percent) of all the respondents will choose one provider over another because of a strong online presence (i.e. availability of relevant, accurate and compelling information).

This isn't just something that applies to younger patients. In an age where everyone walks around with a tiny tablet in their pocket (i.e. their smartphone), even older consumers routinely check the online reputation of potential healthcare providers. According to the Doctors.com survey, more than three-quarters of respondents aged 60 and up have used the internet to make a healthcare-related search in the past year. More importantly, the results suggests older consumers are more affected by what they find online. Nine out of ten (90 percent) patients in the 60+ demographic said they will choose a new provider after seeing negative online ratings.

As one of the researchers noted, the data shows that even doctors who rely on referrals need to maintain a strong online presence. A referral may get patients looking in a certain direction, but for may consumers, it's the online reputation they find for a healthcare provider that will be the deciding factor.

"The fact that 81 percent of patients will read reviews about a provider, even after they've been referred, indicates that we've entered a truly consumerist era of healthcare. Patients depend on online sources of information more so than ever, and are using all of the digital tools available to inform themselves and make healthcare decisions," said Andrei Zimiles, CEO of Doctor.com. "While it is paramount for healthcare organizations to provide quality care, they must also focus on building a strong online presence and a seamless customer journey. It's what today's patients expect."

There are several ways doctors can use this information to create a more compelling website for their practice. First, make sure it's easy for new visitors to find testimonials and reviews from satisfied patients. Remember, there are entire websites devoted to giving angry people a place to vent about companies. So making consumers search Google to find reviews could lead them to unfavorable content. If testimonial posts and videos are easy to find from the main website, consumers won't have to go searching and if they did, the reviews on the site will probably appear prominently in the search results.

The Doctors.com survey also revealed some of the online features that consumers want from the website of healthcare providers. For example, nearly half of the survey respondents (45 percent) said they prefer to use digital methods to request an appointment (i.e. online scheduling via a website, app, or email). Clearly, there is a benefit for adding an online scheduling component to a doctor's website.

Similarly, healthcare websites should be useful for handling customer service requests. This can be through an FAQ, a live chat, Facebook Messenger or something similar. Whatever it takes to deliver a good customer service experience for patients is beneficial for the practice over the long term. Assuming they're receiving quality care, 82 percent of the Doctors.com survey respondents ranked customer service as the most important factor influencing their loyalty to a provider.

Though doctors rely on their face-to-face interactions to provide services and build a rapport with their patients, they still need to maintain a strong online presence to attract patients and to provide consumers with the customer service experience they expect.

For some recent research that can help business owners in all industries, read this article on consumer expectations for data handling.

Published on: May 21, 2018