At A Glance

  • More than 50% of respondents to a consumer survey indicated that reputation was the most important factor in selecting a physician.
  • Physicians should not respond directly to patient reviews, as this may violate patients’ HIPAA rights.
  • Keys to protecting your online reputation and building a brand: using one professional photo, updating online profiles, engaging patients, addressing critics, and establishing a social media presence.

I’ve been in private practice for 17 years. In the initial years of my career, I grew my practice via referrals from internal medicine colleagues and word-of-mouth referrals from patients and their family members. As the 2000s have marched forward, I noticed an increasing number of patients mentioning that they found me via the internet. Whether through health insurance, physician-rating sites, or Google searches, my referrals have migrated to online opportunities.

I was often afraid to look up my profile online. Once a year, around Thanksgiving, I would Google myself and casually glance at my patient reviews. As physicians and ophthalmologists, we are engaged in a shared mission of protecting our patients’ sight and empowering their lives. As a profession, we stereotypically do not do well with criticism. Before the advent of online patient reviews, I thought the only “seal of approval” I needed was board certification (with or without maintenance of certification!).

THE IMPORTANCE OF ONLINE REPUTATION

More than 40 online sites feature physician reviews or ratings. An article in the Wall Street Journal noted that physicians are “wary of bad reviews from disgruntled patients” and that many regularly check their reviews and make changes as a result.1 (See Correspondence With a Former Colleague.)

Hanauer and colleagues conducted a survey to assess the factors patients use when selecting a physician.2 I group their findings into three broad categories, from high importance to lower importance. High importance includes whether a physician accepted a patient’s insurance (95% very important or somewhat important), was conveniently located (95%), or had many years of experience (92%). Slightly lower in importance, a second category included whether a physician is part of a trusted group practice (81%), word of mouth from family and friends (85%), and referral from another physician (80%). Lower still, a physician’s rating on websites was reported to be very important or somewhat important by 59% of respondents.

Of note, the study showed that 35% of individuals selected physicians with good reviews or ratings and 37% avoided physicians with bad reviews or ratings.

Last year, a survey by the marketing firm BrightLocal asked consumers, “For which of these local businesses does ‘Reputation’ matter the most when choosing a business?” More than 50% of respondents said that, for physician practices and restaurants, reputation was the most important factor in selecting a business.3 As a foodie myself, I typically look up a restaurant’s online reputation through numerous sites before making a reservation. (I sometimes even look at my own Yelp profile when I look up a restaurant, but that’s another issue.)

Anna Fels, a blogger for the New York Times Opinionator, pointed to the many challenges that physicians face when considering a response to online patient reviews.4 Physicians are indeed held to a higher standard than other service providers, she noted, and HIPAA prevents physicians from revealing patient information.

SEARCH ENGINE SELF-EXAMINATION

In 2012, I Googled myself through numerous searches: “Ravi Goel…Ravi Goel, MD…Ravi Goel MD, rating.” I found that Healthgrades, a physician review site, was among the top websites returned on a Google search. Other sites included my practice page, LinkedIn profile, and YouTube channels.

My goal was to optimize my first two pages of Google search results. Studies have shown that consumers have a 35% probability of clicking on the first organic search result they find, 12% on the second, and less than 10% on the third. Subsequent results have a less than 5% chance of being selected, but the impression can still be important.5

In my quest for search engine optimization (SEO), I asked happy and satisfied patients to submit patient reviews. As a result, I slowly increased my ratings online. I also posted links on my practice website and the social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. (My practice has recently initiated patient surveys for every patient through our portal and I have initiated a plan to better engage patients who respond to internal surveys).

By 2014, I found that 60% (12 of 20) of the first two pages of Google search results for “Ravi Goel, MD,” were physician rating sites; my practice website, LinkedIn page, Twitter account, and YouTube channels were the remaining results.

FIVE PEARLS FOR YOUR PRACTICE

For busy retina practices, I offer the following pearls to protect your online reputation and build your brand:

  • Get one great professional photo. Your image is your brand. Every website that you engage with online—practice website, health system, eye hospital and ophthalmology department sites, social media pages, and physician rating sites—should include one recent professional photo.
  • Curate content. As noted above, there are more than 40 physician rating sites. Each site should correctly list your current physician demographics, credentials, and practice information. I have found significant errors on these sites, and I correct them when I find them. Start with Google Business, Healthgrades, Vitals, and Yelp.
  • Engage patients. Patients of all ages engage with the internet and look to their physicians for reliable information. Give your patients the resources they need to make informed health care decisions. I rely heavily on the AAO’s EyeSmart pages for patient education. We achieve patient education marks in the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (otherwise known as MIPS) by sending patients links to EyeSmart the day after their patient visits. I also post educational videos on YouTube, which I can share with patients many years before they need surgery.
  • Address critics. Practices need a rapid response plan to address critics who “flame” your name, your practice, or your brand. I recommend that all responses be off-line (a phone call, a note of apology, an offer of VIP scheduling), with the goal of enhancing the flaming patient’s experience. Physicians should not respond directly to patient reviews as this may violate the patient’s HIPAA rights. Internal patient surveys that are sent to patients the next day (similar to those one receives after getting an oil change) can often help to identify patients who need extra attention.
  • Engage in social media. The question of whether an ophthalmologist should engage in social media was asked and answered about 5 to 7 years ago. Today, patients and colleagues expect thought leaders to have an engaging social media presence. By effectively using platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and blogs, you can build your brand online.

1. Reddy S. Doctors check online ratings from patients and make change: Many physicians are wary of bad reviews from disgruntled patients. Wall Street Journal. May 19, 2014. https://www.wsj.com/articles/doctors-check-online-ratings-from-patients-and-make-changes-1400541227. Accessed February 15, 2019.

2. Hanauer DA, Zheng K, Singer DC, et al. Public awareness, perception, and use of online physician rating sites. JAMA. 2014;311(7):734-735.

3. Local Consumer Review Survey. Brightlocal.com website. https://www.brightlocal.com/learn/local-consumer-review-survey/. 2018. Accessed February 15, 2019.

4. Fels A. Do you Google your shrink? New York Times. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/04/do-you-google-your-shrink/. April 4, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2019.

5. Chaffey D. Comparison of clickthrough rates by position. Smartinsights.com website. https://www.smartinsights.com/search-engine-optimisation-seo/seo-analytics/comparison-of-google-clickthrough-rates-by-position/. July 9, 2018. Accessed February 15, 2019.