A decade ago, people who wanted to find a new doctor would ask their friends and family for recommendations. Today, people look to online reviews, expanding their reach exponentially. In 2014, Becker’s Healthcare reported that nearly half of people they surveyed would even go out of network for physicians with good reviews.

“It’s another form of ask-your-neighbor,” said Kim Fox, senior vice president at the Brentwood, Tenn.-based strategic communication firm, Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, Inc. “They are just able to ask a lot more neighbors than they used to be able to.”

People like to use the internet as a medium for complaints. When people are happy with a service, they may tell 1 person, but irritated or dissatisfied patients want to tell the world, Fox said. Managing complaints can be a way to make or break your patient relationships and online reputation.

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Pick your battles

If you find out a patient has placed a bad review of your office online, you first have to decide if it is in your best interest to acknowledge it. If you have a thick skin and there is just a few, you may want to ignore them, said Rich Sharp, senior vice president of digital at ReviveHealth in Nashville, Tenn.

“What it really boils down to is, does the crowd say 1 thing – and is it positive – and does that outweigh 1 or 2 bad reviews,” he said. “The point at which you respond is going to be different for every physician.”

For instance, if 10% of your patients are complaining online about wait times or care, there is probably critical mass. If 2 patients complain about wait times, it may not be indicative of a bigger issue.

You also have to gauge whether reaching out will actually remedy the situation. If talking to the patient may help you improve the care you provide, it may be worth a phone call.

Online monitoring

The easiest, and most costly, way to know if people are writing bad reviews is to hire an online monitoring service to track what is being said about your office. These often charge on a monthly basis.

It costs a lot less to have staff do the work. You need to designate a specific person to do this work and have him monitor the net regularly. He should have a list of public review sites to check including Yelp, Healthgrades and RateMDs (3 of the most commonly read).

“It can be the office manager, but it doesn’t have to be,” Fox said. “Some people enjoy, and get, social media and you may want to have them take charge.”

How to react

If you are employed by a hospital, responding to negative reviews will be easy. Many big hospitals have monitoring systems and online reputation management program.

If you are on your own, the job of responding to negative reviews falls to your office. The person who is monitoring your presence could also be in charge of responses. Fox and Sharp offer these tips for a rapid response: 

Templated responses. Fox recommends having 10 to 12 templates ready to use. This allows you to connect with the patient quickly, which is important. It also provides enough variety that it does not look like you are repeating yourself. She recommends running the responses by an attorney to make sure it’s HIPAA compliant.

Mind HIPAA. Do not discuss anything related to a patient’s treatment or describe it in any way. If you cannot tell who the person is by his or her post, do not give away any identifying information. Give very generic responses to any comments the patient makes.

Go offline. If the situation is sensitive or you feel like you may breach HIPAA by responding, Sharp recommends responding strictly through back channels. If you can respond online, Fox said to respond with the template, give them a number at which to reach you, and do not take part in any other public conversation with the patient.

Take the high road. Avoid being combative. Connecting with the patient in a meaningful way can help you understand why the patient is dissatisfied and potentially improve your practice. In other words, Fox recommends being “positive, polished and compassionate.”

Finally, a good way to balance out negative reviews is to have more positive ones. You should not feel awkward about asking patients to review you online, Fox said.

“It’s OK to ask happy patients to rate you,” she said. “Just say, ‘We love patients like you and would like more of them.’ Don’t be afraid to do it.”

If you do not personally want to make the request of patients, you can have your office staff or nurse do it. Or you can send a handwritten note to patients asking them to let others know how satisfied they are by writing a review.

Fox also encourages physicians to thank anyone who gives a good review.

“Don’t just respond to trolls,” she said. “Designate someone to respond to those that give wonderful reviews as well.”

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