Online Reviews: New Research, Intriguing Insights, and the Power of ‘Peer Trust’

You can’t escape it. From search engine result pages to community sites, online reviews of healthcare services are everywhere. Even the scientific community has taken notice, which may explain why online reviews are a popular topic for study in a variety of recently published medical journals.

Consider the trends and takeaways found in recent research:

Reviews have a powerful allure — even when they’re painful to read

A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM) reports that:

  • 39% of patients used websites to find information about doctors
  • 53% of doctors said they read online reviews about themselves
  • 78% of doctors said the possibility of negative online comments added to their job stress

Doctor takeaway: The days of dismissing the importance of online reviews are over, at least for the market-savvy majority of doctors who are paying attention to what patients are saying. They recognize that the path to care has changed and that their reputation is being set long before they meet potential patients in person. Yes, reviews can cause discomfort, but doctors who fail to embrace them are increasingly seen as out of date — if they’re seen at all.

You may be worrying about the wrong things

A study in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery explored the reasons patients post both highly positive (5 stars) and highly negative (1 star) reviews. Looking at the factors that go into patients’ determinations, they found that:

  • Among 5-star reviews, the most commonly cited factor was bedside manner (cited by 26.3%), followed by knowledge (21.7%) and results (17.1%)
  • Among 1-star reviews, the most commonly cited factor was bedside manner (23.1%), followed by honesty/pressure (22.3%) and office staff (17.9%)

Doctor takeaway: It’s all too easy to think your expertise and the outcomes you provide speak for themselves, but how you treat patients in a non-medical sense matters more than you may think. Listening to patients, not pressuring them and providing good customer service throughout their journey can make a huge difference in how they eventually rate their experiences with your practice.

As the JAMA study notes:

The internet has increased word-of-mouth communication so that the reputation of potentially every medical practice is on display for anyone to see. Patient satisfaction with results with superior physician bedside manner yields the best reviews.

 Not all review sites are created equal

The JGIM study cited above noted that patients trusted the accuracy of data obtained from independent websites (57%) more than patient experience surveys published by the healthcare system that provided their care (45%). On the other hand, a study by the Hospital for Special Surgery found that there was little consistency in the reviews posted on major healthcare-review sites, including Healthgrades, Vitals, and RateMDs.

Doctor takeaway: Determine which sites are actually helping you achieve your business goals. Having reviews show up wherever potential patients are likely to see them is always worthwhile, but recognize that some sites are essentially platforms for venting while others are designed to encourage deeper engagement. That may explain why the average star rating for plastic surgeons on RealSelf is 4.7, vs. 4.2 on Healthgrades, 4.1 on RateMDs, and 3.5 on Vitals.

While each of the above studies analyzes a particular aspect of the world of doctor reviews, they all provide support for a more fundamental shift in human behavior, i.e., the mechanisms people use to decide who they’re going to trust. As an article in the Harvard Business Review states, the continuing decline in so-called “institutional trust,” i.e., people’s faith in government, corporations, and other large organizations, has been matched by an increase in trust among individuals. Thanks to the rise of the internet and related digital tools, this “peer trust” is influencing how people shop (e.g., Amazon reviews), how they travel (Airbnb, Lyft, etc.), and how they choose their doctors. As the HBR article puts it:

The DNA of ‘peer trust’ is built on opposite characteristics [than institutional trust] — micro, bottom-up, decentralized, flowing, and personal. The result of this shift is not only the emergence of disruptive new business models. Convention in how trust is built, lost and repaired — in brands, leaders and entire systems – is being turned upside down.

And you don’t need a scientific study to know that the trust aesthetic consumers generate among each other goes a long way in determining who they’ll eventually trust with their care.

Learn more on how to build trust online with our RealSelf Business Pages — a 360-degree view of your practice — during our April 19 webinar, “Let Her Know Your Business.” 

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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