“Patient journey” has become a buzzword among healthcare executives and medical marketers, as the industry tries to understand every step of the patient’s healthcare path. Knowing the sequence of patient actions, and preferences along the way, help us understand how their journey shapes decision-making and the overall patient experience.
For healthcare practices seeking to attract more patients, it’s important to first understand a subset of that experience: the patient search journey, often the first step. It refers to when, where, and how patients search for healthcare information online and which factors drive their choices.
How patient online search begins
In most cases, the patient search journey begins with a question. Where is the nearest urgent care center? What is this rash on my foot? Who is the best OB/GYN in midtown? Which local dentists offer cosmetic teeth whitening? The options are endless.
Healthcare practices with a keen understanding of the patient search journey can answer questions that are a) pertinent to their specialty and b) asked most often. Then, they can deliver the information healthcare consumers are looking for, in the quest to acquire new patients and grow their practice.
The patient search journey, defined
A patient’s online search begins with a request for information, resources, healthcare providers, and/or answers to specific questions. Today, with 88 percent of the search engine market, Google is where nearly all prospective patients turn for answers, or when they don’t know which website or source to consult.
The patient search journey includes two key stages: research and evaluation. Healthcare practices that can deliver information and relevant content at both stages — answering prospective patients’ questions and then influencing their actions — are well-positioned to seal the deal with a new patient appointment.
Stage #1: Research, plus two types of healthcare internet searches
The first stage of the search journey is research, as not all prospective patients are actively looking for a healthcare provider (yet!). Healthcare practices should focus on ranking highly for two types of healthcare internet searches:
- patients looking for a specific doctor or provider by name, or a particular specialty or type of care
- patients searching for information related to specific healthcare conditions, symptoms, or treatments
While the timing or sense of urgency for these two groups varies, it’s safe to bet that the person conducting either type of search may be ready to book an appointment with a new healthcare provider in the near future.
In a doctor- or provider-specific search, a patient looks for a certain type of healthcare provider (a specialist or a provider offering a specific service, also known as a discovery search), or conducts a query about a specific provider by name (very common with referrals). Here are some examples:
- Best open heart surgeon in [city name]
- What type of doctor treats pelvic floor disorders?
- Which local doctors are LGBT friendly?
- Local primary care doctors who accept Medicare
- Dentists that offer sedation near me
To attract and convert prospective patients conducting a doctor-specific search, you’ll need three crucial online basics: an effective local search marketing strategy, a strong web presence, and a positive online reputation.
This combination can help your practice rise to the top of search engine results, while providing information that affirms your practice is a good choice. Once a patient finds your brand and website, they’re more likely to take action if your website offers an easy-to-navigate experience (think online scheduling and click-to-call for mobile users) and strong online patient reviews and testimonials. Those bottom-line best practices can help transform website visitors into new patients.
Condition/healthcare question searches
You can also capitalize on the type of search patients undertake when they’re looking for health information. They may be researching certain procedures or treatments, or asking about particular symptoms or health conditions. Here are a few examples:
- What’s the difference between COVID-19 and flu symptoms?
- When does a mole need to be removed?
- How to treat a hernia
- What is balloon sinuplasty?
- Minimally invasive hysterectomy
- What is recovery like after a total knee replacement?
Note that these prospective patients aren’t looking for a physician in their queries. But this search for information can land them right at your website — if you’ve populated your site with comprehensive information about the conditions you treat and services you provide.
As part of your practice’s medical marketing strategy, you should incorporate search keywords and content that relate to your specialty and services. Doing this on your practice website is a must. Adding keyword-rich content to your blog and social media channels is even better, increasing the likelihood that you’ll rank well in general searches like those noted above.
Stage #2: Evaluation, plus the resources patients consult before booking an appointment
While internet search plays a huge role in the patient search journey, it’s just the beginning of the selection process. Once a prospective patient is ready to make a decision, the evaluation stage begins. At this point, most savvy healthcare consumers consult a variety of resources before they’re ready to make an appointment. Here are a few to remember:
- Insurance plan directory: Patients often start by checking to see which provider(s) are in-network or covered by their insurance plan. This helps narrow their search pool, and gives them provider and/or practice names to start researching.
- Practice website: If patients rely on their insurance company directory, they’re likely to make a short list of providers and start searching by name to choose the right one. If search result information resonates with them, they’ll head over to the practice’s website.
That’s your chance to engage prospective patients right away, and ensure they don’t go elsewhere. To win patients over, make sure your website is clearly organized and easy to navigate. Offer doctor bios (consider video), patient testimonials and reviews, and a comprehensive overview of the services you provide. Be sure to offer a full web page for each service — that allows you to address each with some depth and establish your search authority in the process. Highlight anything that differentiates your practice from the others in town.
- Online reviews: In 2021 PatientPop patient survey research, 74 percent of patients looking online consider positive reviews very or extremely important to their decision. For patients, reviews act as validation that your practice will deliver an exceptional patient experience and quality care.
As part of this evaluation phase, prospective patients often turn to popular online review sites like Google, WebMD, and Yelp to check out your reputation. The same research indicates that 7 of 10 patient reviews read online reviews as part of their assessment process.
In addition to reviews, Google’s powerful star-rating system makes it easy for patients to differentiate exceptional practices from others at just a glance. Implementing strategies like sending out automated patient satisfaction surveys and enhancing the patient experience can help boost your average star rating and overall online reputation.
- Healthcare directories: Many patients have grown accustomed to checking online provider directories. As an example, in the research mentioned above, 1 in 3 patients who read reviews will turn to WebMD as a resource.
To ensure your practice and providers wow prospective patients, be sure to claim your profiles on each website, and update your physician bios to include their head shot, education and training, clinical interest(s), awards, publications, and anything else that sets them apart from the competition.
Closing the deal: Converting searchers to patients
By this point in the search journey, the patient is likely ready to make an appointment. If you’re their choice, start off on the right foot by making it easy on them. In 2019 research from Accenture, 68 percent of patients say they’re more likely to choose providers that offer the ability to book, change, or cancel appointments online.
Once booked, offer your newly acquired patients digital tools such as automated appointment reminders, text messaging with your practice, and even telehealth options. Delivering on their digital preferences will prevent a no-show and reiterate your commitment to patient convenience.