The Increasing Importance of Online Physician Ratings to Drive Patient Engagement

Evan Marks, Chief Strategy Officer,Healthgrades

In today's dynamic health-care marketplace, online search is redefining the way consumers find a physician. Innovative Web sites have paved the way and now hospitals and health-care systems are recognizing the value as well.

Online search is redefining the way consumers find a physician—innovative Web sites have paved the way, and now hospitals and health-care systems are recognizing the value as well.

In today’s dynamic health-care marketplace, Affordable Care Act mandates are driving insurers to limit the number of doctors included in their provider networks. This movement restricts consumers’ choices and heightens the need to make new and informed decisions about the right doctors for their care. Moreover, as networks continue to shift, physicians are also often required to look outside their existing referral circles when making in-network referrals. This doesn’t always bode well for the patient, as physicians making referrals to other in-network physicians may not have as great an understanding of the specific skills or degree of experience as they would with those they enjoy longstanding relationships with. In addition, while narrow networks are required to have minimum access requirements by specialty (e.g., no more than a 20-minute drive to see an orthopedic surgeon), they rarely evaluate the access to providers who have expertise or experience with specific conditions or procedures. There might be an orthopedic surgeon within a 20-minute drive, but not one who can fix your spine. Consumers really need to do their homework.

In order to wade through the sheer volume of information available, consumers (and referring physicians) are often going online to research their options. According to Pew Research Center, almost three-quarters of Internet users (72 percent) search for health information online. In fact, consumer use of online physician reviews increased 68 percent last year alone (Becker’s Hospital Review).

While the health-care industry has been historically reluctant to openly share quality, experience, outcomes, and safety data, consumers have come to expect high levels of transparency and engagement. Other industries, like Travelocity and Zillow, have driven this shift by providing objective data that’s credible and impartial. Amazon and Yelp personalize information using consumer profiles and clever algorithms, and Uber and Airbnb disrupt traditional models through innovative approaches.

A number of health-care Web sites, many of them offering digital tools, are now embracing this desire for transparency and empowering consumers to find the right hospital and the right doctor for the right care that might change—or even save—their lives. Healthgrades, founded in 1998, was the first comprehensive physician review and hospital quality comparison database to disrupt the market. Still recognized as a leading innovator, it currently provides profiles of more than 4 million health-care providers in the US that include their demonstrated experience involving more than 12,000 diseases, conditions, and procedures and across 1,100 specialties, as well as comprehensive hospital quality, safety, and patient satisfaction ratings.

New to the site are open text reviews on all physician profiles, which enhance how patients can leave feedback about the care they receive from providers. Healthgrades is also offering online appointment scheduling for select health-care systems, with broader rollout expected in the coming year.

RateMDs, Vitals, and ZocDoc also hold significant market share by offering differentiated value to consumers. RateMDs’ reviews are heavily focused on patient satisfaction ratings, and visitors to the site are encouraged to share their own personal experiences. While ZocDoc also provides basic physician information and patient reviews, it does so only for those providers who have paid to be listed. ZocDoc focuses primarily on convenience, emphasizing its online scheduling functions, as well as the ability to complete and store many necessary medical forms online for use across multiple offices. Vitals, the ”youngest” of the bunch with a 2008 launch, encourages patient reviews, provides scheduling tools for online appointments, and also features the SmartShopper incentives program, which provides cash to patients who shop for cost-effective care.

Other health-care and consumer organizations have also expanded their offerings in recent years to include physician search capabilities. WebMD, one of the most trafficked healthcare websites, provides information, communities, and in-depth reference material about a wide variety of health topics, as well as a robust Physician Directory where visitors can search for doctors based on region as well as specialty, condition, or procedure. Yelp, the ubiquitous site for consumer reviews, has also continued to grow as a resource for consumers looking for physicians. In an effort to enhance its 1.3 million health-care provider ratings, Yelp recently partnered with ProPublica to incorporate more objective health-care statistics and consumer survey data on more than 25,000 medical facilities. And through its Physician Compare tool, the federal government is now also providing search capabilities for physicians and group practices enrolled in Medicare.

As consumers search with more frequency for physicians online, hospitals are increasingly engaging with these leading online rating sites to share information and work collaboratively to ensure that their physicians are discoverable. Simultaneously, they are adding physician search and ratings functionality to their own sites to enhance transparency. University of Utah Health Care has led this movement and currently provides online access to their physicians’ patient satisfaction scores and comments with more than 40,000 patient surveys on file.

Online ratings sites are quickly becoming the first stop for most consumers when selecting a doctor or hospital for their care. Today, a patient’s first encounter with a new doctor will often be through a digital channel. Therefore, it is critical that physicians proactively and strategically manage their online reputations. Positive consumer engagement not only bolsters and enhances relevancy online, but it can translate to improved patient satisfaction offline as well.