Is ‘Optimism Bias’ Killing Your Medical Reputation?

Plastic surgeons and dermatologists tend to focus their “reputation management” efforts around boosting online star-ratings by delivering predictable, high quality service–e.g, taking time during consults, offering support before, during and after procedures and, of course, delivering the best possible outcomes. All of this makes sense, and is good for patients.

However, the most potent reputation killer for a medical practice applies to the service delivered before an appointment even takes place: the response to a consumer’s online inquiry for a consultation or information about the practice. These “leads” are the lifeblood of online marketing, and the time to respond is a key determinant to closing the sale or getting the consultation appointment.

According to the latest RealSelf survey (n=391), 3 days after submitting an inquiry to a realself doctor, 44% of consumers still hadn’t received a single response from the medical practice.

doctor office response to consumer leads or inquiries

That’s a terrible performance, especially when you contrast it with other industries that target responding to leads in less than 5 minutes in order to have a 6X increased likelihood of converting the lead into a customer. It’s especially bad in medicine because a slow response sends a subtle message back to the consumer about how the practice treats patients. What if I need aftercare help and you don’t respond in 72 hours? Then what?

Another RealSelf survey run 28 days after contacting a doctor via email shows that a full 1 in 3 inquiries get no response at all. Sure, some online inquiries can be categorized as unqualified, but the vast majority of cases are by people who intend to undergo a cosmetic procedure and simply want to talk with the practice. At RealSelf we get emailed daily by consumers who are distraught that a practice has yet to respond. Here’s a typical case:

I have tried via email to get this appointment but have not had any success thus far. Please advise appointment possibly next week late in the week? 

In some situations we are asked to intervene and help make the connection, while most say they’d never go to an practice with such poor responsiveness. They are angry about a practice and doctor they’ve never met!

Most doctors feel they’re not facing this reputation risk because they believe their office responds to inquiries very quickly. A RealSelf survey of aesthetic doctors shows that most cite a response time in 24 hours or less.

online inquiries, doctor responses

I found the dissonance between the response time and doctor survey data to be confusing, so I reached out to industry and practice consultant Karen Zupko for an explanation. Karen responded in email (quickly, for what it’s worth) where she identified the culprit here as “optimism bias,” the human tendency to believe that you’re less likely to experience a negative event or outcome compared to others.

She explained that plastic surgeons –and other practitioners– can be blinded by their optimistic bias, which produces managerial blinders and creates “marketing myths” which doctors come to believe. For medical practices, the bias shows up in a variety of ways — assuming all is well because a staffer provides the “right” answer to a question, that is, the one they think you want to hear — but it may be especially problematic when it comes to responding to online inquiries: Again, according to our latest doctor survey, 90% of respondents (n = 157 practices) said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they responded to online inquiries within 24 hours.

Whether its a myth of not, if the practice fails to measure response time or set a goal there’s a good likelihood the practice is suffering from steady drumbeat of lost patients, revenue, and reputation. In the digital era, when aesthetic consumers conclude that a doctor doesn’t care enough to respond, they’re quick to seek out another who will.

Doctor Takeaways

1. Respond as if your practice depended on it People may take years to commit to cosmetic surgery but once they do, they expect near-instantaneous responses to their inquiries. Be quick, be personable (even if it’s a staff member who does the responding) and strive to be helpful by providing information not a sales pitch for your services.

2. Establish procedures to prevent problems As Zupko suggests, it’s all too easy to let optimistic bias cloud the picture of what is or isn’t getting done. (Unclear management, employee turnover, etc., only exacerbate the problem.) Good lead management entails having a response plan in place before you need it, setting reasonable expectations, and then beating them.

3. Monitor results and make changes as needed Simply asking employees about online inquiries and responses is asking for trouble. Instead, work with your webmaster or marketing agency to create reports that track when inquiries come in, where they come from and what sort of follow-up they received. You get what you measure.

About TomS

Tom Seery is the founder and CEO of RealSelf. Tom is a frequent speaker at medical conferences about practice marketing, reputation management, and competing on the web. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/seery

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