Ways that Physicians can Earn Praise Honestly

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What doctor doesn’t want patients raving about him or her on the Internet? What business owner of any kind doesn’t want public praise?

An old adage is that one happy customer can generate at least three new customers by word of mouth. Healthcare is no different. Patients are customers, too, and there is no medical practice or group that does not want happy customers cheerleading for their doctors to other healthcare consumers.

The Internet has amplified doctors’ interest in online reputation management. With the explosion of rate-your-doctor websites such as RateMDs.com, Healthgrades.com and Yelp.com, healthcare professionals’ interest in getting good online patient reviews is growing exponentially.

And for good reason. Not only do good reviews bode well for a practice’s online reputation; they also boost credibility in Google rankings.

But is it unethical for a physician or practice to ask happy patients to post positive online reviews? I say absolutely not, as long as it’s done within certain guidelines:

1. Ask only real patients to post reviews

It’s disheartening to see medical groups resorting to review stuffing. By this, I mean the practice of asking office staff, friends and even family to pose as patients online and heap glowing praise on a provider or physician group.

Fake reviews are often easy to spot. They typically are long on adjectives and short on facts

The faux reviewer commonly says very little about her medical condition or the events of her doctor’s appointment. Instead she waxes on and on about her doctor’s greatness and furnishes insufficient evidence to support her opinion.

Why stoop to counterfeit online reviews? What healthcare provider doesn’t have some portion of happy patients? (There may be a tiny number without any, of course, and if so, their problem is clearly much bigger than Yelp or RateMDs.)

The real task is to get the happy patients to tell the truth in the right place.

2. Request – don’t pressure – happy patients to rate their experiences

Some healthcare groups offer gift cards or other rewards for posting favorable comments online. Bad idea.

Pressuring or incentivizing patients to comment publicly doesn’t pass the smell test. Such an approach also jeopardizes the delicate physician-patient relationship.

The best approach is simply to ask your most contented patients – the ones who’ve already expressed their thanks for successful treatment – to say something on one of the rank-your-doctor websites.

Not all will comply. But if you ask enough, you’ll get an adequate amount of responses. Many physicians do this efficiently simply by responding to grateful patient letters or calls with a tactful request for an online review.

It doesn’t take many responses from these patients to tip the balance and dramatically improve online ratings.

3. Offer patients constant feedback opportunities

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of reputation. Give patients a chance both to compliment and complain.

One goal is to hear from the complainers before they go public in hopes of resolving their grievance privately. Conversely, the other goal is to identify the happiest patients so you can encourage them to say nice things on the Internet.

Ensure patients have ample opportunities to sound off every step of the way. This includes special cards distributed at the clinics’ check-out stations asking patients to fill out an online satisfaction survey.

Sending post-appointment emails with links to the survey is even better.

And don’t make it hard to complain. To an irritated patient, nothing’s more aggravating than having to answer a 12-page questionnaire (yes, we’ve seen them that long) just so she can get to HER complaint.

4. Take the bad with the good – answer critical reviews publicly.

Despite your best efforts, some complainers inevitably go online to air grievances. Unfortunately, bitter complainers are occasionally not actual patients but unscrupulous competitors masquerading as patients.

Other times, patients are simply beyond any reason and logic. As unfair as such protests may be, practices still should deal with them.

From time to time when you can present supporting documentation, you may be able to persuade the website publisher to remove egregiously untrue airings.

Other times, you can capitalize on a benefit of independent rate-your-doctor websites that’s not available on a medical practice’s own website: independence.

Everyone knows a practice controls the information on its own website. The credibility of a testimonial on a medical practice’s website is about half that of the same comment on social media.

Everyone knows, on the other hand, that a business exerts less power over social-media websites. Yes, the owner of a Facebook page can remove others’ comments, but there is still an extra degree of credibility of posts on that platform because the poster put a comment there herself.

A review of a doctor on Google or Healthgrades is even more believable. So when a complaint shows up on one of these sites, have a practice administrator (or, if possible, a physician) answer it. (You must first “claim” the business listed on the review website by submitting answers to questions designed to authenticate the business owner.)

Simply responding to criticism in a non-defensive manner goes a long ways towards signaling to other visitors on that site that you’re listening to customers. Sometimes it also encourages your biggest fans to come to your defense by posting counter-balancing positive reviews.

Of course, for privacy concerns, take care to avoid any discussion of a single patient’s case or health conditions in your public responses. (Some websites allow you to respond privately instead or additionally.)

Nonetheless, feel free to talk about broad policies – such as what your practice is doing to reduce wait time for physicians or why doctors often require patients to make a follow-up appointment before getting a prescription refill.

By all means, in your response to a negative review, ask the complaining patient to contact you directly in hopes of resolving her dissatisfaction. That tells others that your practice takes responsibility for patient satisfaction.

5. Deliver top-quality customer service.

This objective should be self evident. Sadly, we see plenty of practice cultures to the contrary.

More and more these days, the practice of medicine is becoming a retail service. Twenty-first-century Americans want an ATM on every corner, a Starbucks on every block, grocery stores 5 minutes drive from home, gas stations that serve fresh food, and their doctors to show up on time (or close to it) and give them adequate attention, as well as medical receptionists and billing departments that treat them with kindness and respect.

There’s no way to reverse these expectations. In our two decades of healthcare marketing, we’ve seen the price paid many times for poor customer service.

Medical practices with the worst service regularly get the worst online reviews. The best online reviews start with the best service. Be good to your customers in your offices and they will be good back to you online.

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