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High standards, high stakes: How healthcare provider reviews drive patient choice

In brief

Online doctor reviews by patients are foundational in their journey to care. They’re critical to building trust and driving consumer choice. 

  • In the new era of healthcare, PX and CX collide. The thin line between patient experience (PX) and consumer experience (CX) is increasingly blurred. We must recalibrate to see healthcare as one continuous Human Experience journey—a journey that begins as soon as someone starts looking for care.
  • Reviews are baseline. When a patient evaluates healthcare providers, online reviews are the #1 factor in their decision-making process, as well as a key driver of trust. Consumers today want a deeper understanding of what to expect from your organization and providers, and reviews help fill in the blanks.  
  • No one website rules them all. Consumers want to see a common brand narrative wherever they encounter reviews of providers—and the new Google Search Generative Experience is compiling reviews from the healthcare web. On Healthgrades, WebMD, your very own website, and beyond, reviews of doctors must be syndicated web-wide to reach consumers where they are, expand your reputation, and plant the seeds of credibility.

We’ve entered a new era of healthcare. An era where digital dominates, and what once were considered "consumer" behaviors now pave the patient’s path to care and influence their decisions. How people find providers, weigh their options, and ultimately book appointments looks radically different than it did just a few years ago. For one, reliance on referrals has been trending down YOY. And self-directed online search has, for the very first time, eclipsed provider referrals as the driving force behind consumer search and choice.

In more recent years, the healthcare industry has made huge strides toward digital transformation—and we’re seeing it pay off in big ways. Patient access to care has been improved—and new patient acquisition, revolutionized. At the same time, digitalization has redefined consumer trust and loyalty as we know it.

We surveyed 1,000 healthcare consumers to understand their journey to care, and key drivers of where and with whom people will book appointments today. Overall, an organization's and its physicians’ online reputation remains mission-critical to consumer decision-making. But their behaviors around ratings and reviews? That’s become much more nuanced.

How online healthcare reviews impact consumer choice

Online reviews of providers are table stakes. Ratings and reviews are the #1 factor during a consumer’s research phase—ahead of ratings and reviews of the facility (#2) and doctor referral, which dropped to third place.

On average, people read 4.7 reviews before deciding on a healthcare provider. While that number has dipped slightly YOY, our data indicates that those reviews carry more weight. Even when someone has a referral in hand, 83.5% at least “occasionally” turn to online reviews to validate the recommendation.

But there’s a disconnect between the importance of reviews and those who bother to write them in the first place. Just under 50% of consumers have reviewed a healthcare provider online—down nearly 5% from the previous year. To combat this trend, healthcare organizations must develop a proactive strategy for collecting and disseminating patient feedback to build up and expand the online reputation of the organization, its facilities, and providers.

What makes a good review, good?

The importance of star ratings has been a thorn in the side of marketing departments vying for a perfect score. Most consumers think 4 (out of 5) is the lowest-acceptable rating for a healthcare provider. That said, contrary to popular belief, having one or two less-than-glowing reviews makes an online profile seem more trustworthy, because patients know you’re not doctoring or sponsoring reviews, or simply filtering out negative feedback.

But ratings aren’t everything, and not all reviews are created equal. The most important factor when reading reviews is quality (defined as its credibility and helpfulness). Review quality is more important than average rating, number or reviews, and review recency.

That said, it’s still important to regularly collect reviews to increase your supply and build your reputation. Detractors are more likely to go online to lambast a bad experience than patients whose expectations were met or even exceeded. Without a proactive review collection strategy, unhappy customers will remain louder than satisfied consumers. Another reason to continuously collect reviews: 64.8% of consumers think those over one year old are irrelevant.

Digital influence across the web’s key platforms

There’s no silver bullet for where reviews should live. Your organization and its providers must tell a consistent brand story, via reviews, everywhere people search for care. Google has even adapted the search experience when patients are looking for healthcare. Over 70% of healthcare searches are landing in the new Google Search Generative Experience, where reputational reviews and data from Healthgrades, Vitals, WebMD, Google, Facebook, your own website, and other highly trafficked domains get turned into a summary about that provider which Google is promoting above the map, organic results, and even sponsored ads.

On top of ensuring the patient experience on Google is maximized, maintaining a broad online footprint is critical to patient acquisition. On average, consumers look at 2.3 sites before selecting a provider, and over a third emphasize the importance of finding reviews on multiple websites during their search (a number that’s up 29.6% YOY).

Thankfully, healthcare institutions have responded admirably to evolving expectations. They’re increasingly embracing transparency—i.e., the practice of collecting and publishing patient reviews on proprietary and third-party domains. It’s paying off too. Nearly 60% of consumers today say finding information about providers and accessing healthcare is “not difficult” or even “easy.” For the other ~40%, their top challenge remains consistent from last year: finding a provider with appointments available.

The convergence of PX and CX in the healthcare consumer journey

Healthcare professionals have started to recognize that the patient experience, consumer experience, and member experience are all one in the same. It’s all part of one Human Experience. People don’t draw boundaries around their experience as a consumer vs. as a patient or member. Those of us on the inside shouldn’t either.

But what we’d previously consider part of the “consumer experience” portion of that journey (searching for and selecting providers, booking appointments, etc.) sets the stage for the “patient experience” (being seen by a medical professional). Any friction in that journey not only negatively impacts conversions, but it also kicks off their experience on the wrong foot. Reviews arm prospective patients with vital firsthand information and help them understand what to expect. 84.7% report that their personal healthcare experiences mirrored the reviews they read online. And the number of consumers who called online patient reviews “very accurate” jumped 58.3% from the previous year.

Healthcare’s future is exciting—but nothing’s set in stone

Technology and consumerism will, undeniably, be instrumental in shaping the next generation of healthcare experience. But nobody has all the answers. We’re all watching—in real time—a complete metamorphosis of healthcare search and discovery [link Pranav’s blog]. The process looks nothing like it did in 2003 or 2013—and we have no idea what it will look like in 2033, 2043, and beyond. Unprecedented technological achievements (think: ChatGPT and Google Generative Search), consolidation, new entrants for providers and plans, and the ongoing evolution of healthcare consumerization have driven, and continue to spur, tectonic shifts in patient behavior.

As for what’s next? That remains unwritten. But we’re here to help you navigate new and persistent challenges, together. Reach out to a member of our team to discuss our latest CX findings, and their implications for your organization. To dive in deeper, download the full report: “Consumer experience trends in healthcare 2023.”