Understanding how consumers pick doctors online

Insight Article - October 6, 2020

Business Strategy

Recruitment & Hiring

Marketing/Social Media

To help promote your providers online, it’s essential medical group marketing and operations teams understand how health consumers qualify, evaluate, and select providers. Patients typically engage in two distinct but related processes when selecting a physician. First, they determine whether the physician is even a viable option and then they evaluate the physician based on a set of secondary criteria.

Phase 1: Physician qualification

The first and most important question that non-emergency, insured patients ask when choosing a physician is whether the provider accepts their healthcare insurance. After that determination has been made, patients typically look at several other factors to further qualify the physician. In general, the main questions they ask are:
  • Does the physician treat my specific condition?
  • Is the physician accepting new patients?
  • Is the physician conveniently located to me and accessible?
Convenience is, of course, a subjective measure, but it's safe to say that, with the exception of patients who are willing to travel any distance to see a specialist, most people prefer physicians who are close by. Accessibility can be a determining factor for certain demographics who will base their choice of physicians on those who are accessible by public transportation or those who have weekend appointments because they can’t take time away from their jobs.

These are only some of the common criteria patients use to qualify physicians. Some patients consider other factors. For example, oncology patients often focus on issues relating to diagnosis, second opinions, surgery, interventional radiology, chemotherapy, and rehabilitation.

Figure 1: Qualifying and Selecting Physicians

Phase 2: Physician evaluation and selection criteria

After patients determine that a physician accepts their insurance and meets their other primary qualification criteria, they proceed to assess them using a secondary set of criteria. These secondary criteria are not necessarily less important than the qualification criteria; rather, where patients use the former too quickly include or eliminate a physician from consideration, they use the latter to evaluate which physician is best for them.
As shown in Figure 1, patients use a variety of methods to evaluate physicians, all of which have ramifications for how marketers effectively promote their physicians. In order to understand these, we first need to explore the selection criteria in more detail. To bring in new patients, marketers have to understand why people choose the providers they do.

Familiar patterns, fresh insights

Recent research on how patients choose physicians reveals the same trends that we have identified in our work at Geonetric. For example, when asked to rank multiple factors used for selecting a healthcare provider, participants in a study conducted by the Associated PressNORC Center for Public Affairs Research overwhelmingly ranked “accepts insurance” and “experience with the procedure or treatment” as the top two considerations (see Figure 2). The next most important considerations mostly concern doctor-patient interactions and doctors’ personality traits.

Figure 2: Important factors when choosing a doctor or healthcare provider

Determining the quality of a doctor

Consider this: Patients say that their impression of a physician in a face-to-face meeting is nearly as important to them as the amount of experience a physician has performing a procedure and/or providing treatment. They consider helpful staff as important as being board certified, and more important than both the effectiveness of a physician’s prescribed treatments and whether the physician has faced disciplinary action or medical malpractice.

Clearly there’s a lot going on when patients consider a physician, and it often takes healthcare marketers by surprise.
For a slightly different look at how patients evaluate physicians, let’s see how they determine if a doctor is “high quality” (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Most important factors that make a high-quality doctor

 


The most important factor patients consider when assessing the quality of doctors is whether they listen and are attentive. Again, we see that the likability factor is very important to patients. It’s shocking, but this quality is nearly twice as important to patients as an accurate diagnosis. Being “caring” and having a “good bedside manner” are as important as whether the physician is “knowledgeable.” It would be easy to dismiss these findings as an anomaly, but they show up time and again in research. The common assumption is that patients evaluate physicians rationally — using the metrics and standards that healthcare marketers are familiar with — but apparently, they consider soft skills to be far more important than hard skills.

In fact, many of these same factors correlate with malpractice claims. In a study on the communication differences between physicians who have had malpractice claims brought against them and those who have not, researchers found that physicians who made efforts to educate patients, who used humor, and who made certain that their patients understood what they were saying, had fewer malpractice claims brought against them than those who didn’t.

The consolidated framework

We’ve covered a lot of ground in the last few pages and now it’s time to pull it all together. Because there’s so much that patients consider when choosing a physician, we created a framework that consolidates the physician qualification criteria and the physician selection criteria into one, easily-referenced visual (see Figure 4). Once you clearly define and prioritize your goals for physician promotion and have clearly understood how and why patients choose physicians, the next step is to apply this information to your physician promotion strategy.

Figure 4: The consolidated framework: How patients choose physicians

Putting your provider promotion strategy into play

Understanding how patients select providers is essential to ensuring you have the right information online. If you need help making the most of your provider directory, or developing engaging provider profiles, contact the experts at Geonetric.
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