Which would you rather have: a positive review online a trusted word-of-mouth referral straight from one patient to the other? The answer may not be that straightforward. Even when referred by a trusted friend or physician, most consumers still tend to hedge their bets by researching their potential physician or dentist online—at the very least, to obtain contact information. A 2013 IndustryView Report found that 62 percent of survey respondents researched online reviews to help choose a physician, a figure that no doubt has increased over the past few years.
Word-of-mouth referrals by trusted individuals continue to be the major driver of new patient acquisitions—other than insurance acceptance—according to a 2014 article in the Journal of the the American Medical Association (JAMA). This is especially true for specialties that deal with more intimate topics such as oncology or OB/GYN, where a doctor’s bedside manner and relatability are especially important. And for fields where there is widespread variations in specialty areas, like orthopedics or physical therapy, a physician referral may be essential to ensure that the chosen provider is truly qualified to tackle the problem at hand.
An Online Presence is Essential
Despite the tremendous value of personal referrals, online reviews are still necessary to pursue. Since your patients are not obliged in any way to review you, getting a glowing—or even positive—review does a great job in attracting patients further into your sales funnel. While they still might not be ready to book an appointment, they will become further engaged if you include useful health information on your site, such as health tips or interesting blog posts.
Choosing a physician is a complex decision and many factors will be considered by most patients before making their final choices. After researching you online, people may decide to seek you out solely for one of these reasons:
- Your office is close
- You have the best website.
- The wait to see you is shortest.
- You accept a particular insurance.
- You offer the most convenient appointment times.
- You went to a top-tier university or medical school.
- You look good in your website picture.
- The doctor sub-specializes in your area of need.
- You speak a certain desired language.
- It is easy to park there.
Yet, none of these factors represent “the true you” and none of them touch on your quality of care, skills at relationship building, or knowledge of specific medical conditions—critical factors in actually evaluating you once they have selected you as their provider.
There are other potential issues with online reviews. For example, they may not be truly representative of the range of patients’ negative and positive experiences, can potentially be falsified, and may not focus on the most critical aspects of care, like the skills of the provider. Instead, many reviewers, particularly the ones that are upset with their patient experience, are often more concerned with more tangential aspects of care, like staff attitudes or customer service.
Even with these limitations, the bottom line is that you need a comprehensive approach to draw visitors in enough to convert them into patients. This means providing a strong online presence, as well as increasing word-of-mouth business.
While word-of-mouth is a tricky subject—difficult for you to really control—there are steps you can take to increase your influence in this area. Here are a few tips you can consider for your practice; obviously, we only recommend doing what feels comfortable and authentic for you.
Like online reviews, word of mouth can help your business reach more people over time.
Spread a positive culture.
If you are the boss, you are also the person responsible for establishing a positive practice culture. Treat your staff warmly and respectfully and they are sure to follow your lead. Make it a point to ask about them and their families and listen closely to their answers for future follow-up.
Focus on your patients.
Your patients sustain your business, so make an effort to get to know them. If you are seeing them only on a short-term basis for an immediate problem, still take pains to invest in the relationship. By definition, patients are seeing you at a time of stress; it’s best to be aware of that, and try to make them feel comfortable and relaxed through conversation.
Share memorable tidbits.
This one, admittedly, is a challenge. If you are up to the task, share a nugget of research information, care options or diagnostic trends particular to your patient’s condition. By making your patient visit more content-oriented, you have a better chance of imparting some information that your patients will repeat to friends and others—presumably with your name attached.
Seek out referral sources.
Stay involved with professional activities in your field to network with peers and potential referring physicians. Identify some target sources—perhaps physicians in your geographic area or within your practice network, and invite them to have lunch or coffee.
Stay top of mind.
Your patients will be more likely to make referrals to you if you stay on their radar through marketing techniques like Facebook updates, online newsletters and new blog alerts. Any reminder of you could trigger someone to recommend you to friends or family.
In the long run, both personal referrals and positive online reviews are instrumental to the long-term sustainability and growth of your practice. While you may never have complete control over either of these source channels, you certainly can do a great deal to delight and build trust with new and old patients alike.
About the Author:
Michelle Harris has over 20 years of marketing and management experience, in both in-house and consulting roles. She has an MBA from Boston University.