Web-savvy patients shape physicians’ digital do’s and don’ts

Sara Berg, MS , News Editor

It seems as though everything is online, or will be someday. And in a technologically advanced society, physicians need to embrace the internet to reach patients and make sure the information that patients find is accurate.

That was the take-home message delivered to physicians at a recent education session. Deanna Attai, MD, (@DrAttai) and Ravi Goel, MD (@RaviDGoel) shed light on the need for physicians to be visible online. From search results and reviews to social media, physicians had the chance to learn about building their online reputations at the session, “Cultivating and protecting your digital presence: Do’s and don’ts of social media.”

Physicians have long counted on their patients to tell friends what good doctors they are, with the hope that “over time it will build a robust practice,” Dr. Attai said during the session, held at 2017 AMA Annual Meeting. While physicians have been advised to build word of mouth this way, it is a very slow process.

And now word of mouth is no longer person-to-person—it’s done with mouse clicks and keyboards. Patients are doing their research before scheduling an appointment with physicians. Through social media and online reviews, patients may now believe they have ready access to all the information they need to evaluate a physician.

“In this day and age, your reputation is whatever Google says it is,” Dr. Attai said. This means it’s important for physicians to take charge of their brands by improving information available online. If a physician doesn’t have a robust social media profile, information will still show up on HealthGrades, Yelp, ProPublica and other websites. And while Yelp has long been regarded as the go-to site for restaurant reviews, it is now becoming a powerful voice for the medical field.

With 102 million customer reviews on Yelp, 6 percent (6.12 million) are in the health care field. Information from the ProPublica database will appear on provider pages, while Yelp users have access to objective data about medical practice patterns compared to their peers. The increased availability of information means physicians need to make sure their information is accurate and up-to-date.

Dr. Attai shared three important pieces of information for physicians to remember when updating their profiles:

  • Inaccurate information reflects on the physician as a provider.
  • Physicians don’t have control over comments.
  • A professional profile that looks great doesn’t give control over what patients say.

Many people seem to lack common sense when online, which can pose a great risk toward a physician’s reputation.

“There’s this perception of anonymity, especially if you don’t have a lot of followers,” Dr. Attai said. “If you only have a handful of followers or it’s only your friends and family on your Facebook page, you may not realize all it takes is one share to go to a much wider audience.”

The problem with sharing everything online is that patients and the public might see a physician’s “online behavior as a proxy for in-person behavior,” said Dr. Attai. This means, if a physician exhibits poor judgment online, patients will often question their judgment in person too. Physicians should watch what they share online and how they respond to patient comments.

To help physicians manage their online reputation, Dr. Attai stated the best policy can be found from the Mayo Clinic. Among other things, Mayo’s policy offers five important points to remember as a physician using social media:

  • Don’t misrepresent yourself.
  • Be transparent about who you are and what you’re about.
  • Don’t violate patient privacy.
  • Don’t reveal too much of yourself.
  • Once it’s out there, it’s out there.

The question for physicians should not be, “Is it OK to say something?” Dr. Attai said. Rather, the question should be, “As a physician, is it OK to have this conversation in a public space?”

To demonstrate how firmly entrenched the age of Dr. Yelp is, Dr. Goel pointed to a Feb. 19, 2014 JAMA article, “Public Awareness, Perception, and Use of Online Physician Rating Sites,” which states that patients previously only looked for three requirements for a physician. These were:

  • Do they accept my insurance?
  • Is the office location convenient?
  • How many years have they been practicing?

While these three criteria were once predominant in patient decision-making, the article found that physician-rating sites are increasingly important. About 35 percent of patients selected physicians with good ratings or reviews, while 37 percent said they would avoid physicians with bad ratings or reviews, explained Dr. Goel.

“Many of the complaints I found have nothing to do with clinical care,” he said. “It often has to do with billing, scheduling and office attitude.”

Dr. Goel used to Google his name every Thanksgiving, but recently stopped. In doing so, he found that HealthGrades was coming in as a top result, but there were no reviews. Whether he was engaging with patients on social media or in the office, Dr. Goel began asking his patients to share online their experiences with him to further improve his ranking and visibility. This helps patients encounter more accurate information, which means enhanced trust in him as a physician.  

Online reputation management begins with a Google search. Once a physician has searched her name, she should check for inaccurate information, claim her individual or practice profile, and add photos. In his travels across the country speaking on this topic, Dr. Goel noticed disparities among physicians in almost every city. These physicians had no photos or reviews when he Googled their names, which can have a negative impact on online presence.

“I recommend one professional photo. You should never land on a site and not see a photo of you,” Dr. Goel added.

To protect a physician’s online reputation while increasing visibility, Dr. Goel offered five pearls:

  • Choose one professional photo to use across all websites.
  • Update profiles with clear, consistent and factual information.
  • Provide educational resources for patients.
  • Never engage online with a patient who leaves a negative review. Respond offline.
  • Strategic networking, such as through the website LinkedIn, helps physicians stay relevant in practice and profession.

The key to online reputation success is updating and claiming profiles because patients are looking for ratings and content, the physician speakers said. But physicians should keep in mind that there is no filter on the internet and poor reviews will be available to prospective patients for many long years to come.

Read more news coverage from the 2017 AMA Annual Meeting.