The power of the patient testimonial presents a growing challenge for doctors in private practice. Jane Braithwaite shows how to keep up to speed with this phenomenon, the best way to deal with a bad review and how this can be managed so your practice gets the best out of these sites.

It’s a familiar situation: you need a particular service but don’t know where to start. Hotel recommendations, restaurant reviews, a good electrician…

Patients dating gameOur first point of call is usually a preferred search engine, followed by a thorough read of the reviews of countless service providers.

Word of mouth still plays a part in identifying and eventually choosing a service, but sites such as TripAdvisor, Glassdoor and Checkatrade have all become go-to places for people looking for a glimpse at what they can expect before committing to a purchase or organising a service.

The situation is no different when it comes to private healthcare. A recent survey conducted by Software Advice found that around 80% of patients use online reviews when searching for doctors.

The situation is no different when it comes to identifying medical and healthcare services. A recent survey by BrightLocal found that 84% of those questioned valued an online review as much as a word-of-mouth review, and that medical and healthcare professionals are the third most searched-for services – with restaurants and hotels at numbers one and two respectively.

Sites such as Doctify and Top Doctors offer patients a platform both to share experiences and to find out more about the services on offer.

For consumers, these sites can be a goldmine of information, but for physicians there can be a risk: the bad patient review.

How can doctors keep up to speed with this phenomenon, what is the best way to deal with a bad patient review and how can this be managed so your practice gets the best out of these sites?

Maintain confidentiality

Before considering how to deal with online patient reviews, it is worth remembering that these interactions need to be treated the same way as a face-to-face clinic appointment – confidentially.

Patient review sites could be described as a recent phenomenon and can be used to feed into social media. As a result, they have the potential to reach out to huge numbers of people – and unidentified people, at that.

With this in mind, one of the most important things to keep in mind when managing or responding to patient reviews is confidentiality.

Doctors are still obliged to maintain confidentiality, even if a patient has taken the decision to publically discuss their experience with you.

By responding directly to reviews, you could run the risk of publically disclosing that the reviewer is, in fact, your patient – something which you may not have consent to do.

The GMC’s guidance on Good Medical Practice reminds doctors of this and advises that, when communicating publically, patient confidentiality must be maintained. This extends to social media. (See ‘There aren’t any secrets online’).

Studies around this subject have shown there is a lot of uncertainty around the legal implications of interacting with patients via social media. So it may be worthwhile considering a response strategy that takes any discussions offline to a more confidential setting, such as in clinic or over the phone. This way, you will certainly not be accused of a breach of privacy.

Response strategies

Response strategies to unfavourable online patient reviews could be similar to strategies that deal with complaints received in a more traditional fashion through contacting your office directly.

All practices should have a strategy in place to deal with disappointed or disgruntled patients, and this should always involve a swift initial response – even if more investigation is required to determine the circumstances that led to the complaint or bad review being made.

The patient’s records should then be reviewed, along with any correspondence such as emails. A full review of the situation means that you will be better placed to respond confidently and appropriately to the complaint at hand.

Managing expectations

Of course, the best policy is to identify potential problems and deal with them before they reach a point where distress and disappointment has taken someone to the point of leaving a bad patient review.

Work closely with your staff, and make sure they know to alert you to any comments that – if left unchecked – could develop into a more serious complaint.

For example, has a patient commented to your secretary that they always seem to be waiting an unacceptable amount of time to be seen in clinic? Has the patient had to chase the office for information they have been promised?

In cases such as these, use a personal touch – acknowledge the patient’s disappointment and explain why this happened. Honesty is appreciated and respected, and will hopefully contribute to a more open patient-doctor relationship in the future.

Manage your online presence

If you have a practice website, management of your online presence could be expanded to include monitoring patient review sites and liaising with the teams who run them to ensure that you are making the most of the services they offer.

Sites such as Top Doctor also have a reputation to maintain; they pride themselves on connecting with only the very best, using a recommendation system to ensure they only take on respected professionals, so it is in the interests of both parties to make sure that the relationship is fruitful.

Some sites also offer marketing services, supporting doctors with PR activities and social media activity. It is therefore extremely worthwhile connecting with these teams to find out more about how they can help grow your practice.

These sites can also help to improve patient’s initial opinion of your practice; some offer 24-hour online access to clinic appointments, meaning patients don’t have to wait for office hours to book in. This speedy, easy way to book appointments can’t help but give a potential patient a great first impression.

Constructive criticism – a blessing in disguise

So are patient reviews something to be scared of? This is debatable.

While it is not pleasant to know that a patient is dissatisfied with your services, and there is always a chance that a critical comment may put some people off, it is worth remembering that all reviews – both good and bad – will contribute to you having a much better understanding of how your practice is performing.

Without knowing what you are doing wrong, how can it ever be put right?

Tips for managing reviews

Jane Braithwaite is Managing Director at Designated Medical and regularly contributes to the Independent Practitioner Today publication.

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