7 missed opportunities of not creating an online presence

A practical look at information technology issues and usage

By — Posted April 2, 2012.

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There are many reasons why physicians choose not to have a website or participate in social media. There also are many reasons why that decision could end up hurting their practices.

“If you don’t have a social media presence, or at least a deeply integrated digital presence, you’re missing a chance to humanize your organization,” said Howard Luks, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Hawthorne, N.Y., who consults on digital media and medicine issues.

Humanizing your practice is not just about letting patients know who you are. It’s becoming more crucial in attracting new patients.

“It’s a very different business world now with the social Web,” said Lorrie Thomas, CEO of Web Marketing Therapy, a marketing agency and training company.

“We make our decisions based on Googling people and going to their websites.”

For example, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported in its February 2011 Health Topics report that 44% of Internet users look for information about physicians and other health care professionals online. That number was even higher (51%) for Internet users between 34 and 45 years old.

Even if a practice doesn’t need to attract new patients, it’s important for it to control its Web presence, experts say.

“Ignoring the Web doesn’t mean it will go away,” Thomas said. In fact, just because you aren’t there personally doesn’t mean your name and information aren’t out there, she added.

If a doctor still decides it’s too time consuming, expensive or troublesome to get online, there are things they must know before determining it’s the best approach, consultants said.

1. You will not stand out to potential patients. Your name and contact information probably are listed in either a Yellow Pages-type website or the physician finder pages of insurer websites. But without a personal Web presence, a search for local doctors won’t put your name anywhere near the top of a Google search by a patient seeking a new physician. Even if your name does show up in a Google search, patients probably will pass right over it in favor of doctors who have websites, said Renee Quinn, a Washington-based social media educator and consultant.

2. Having no reputation can be as harmful as a bad reputation. Because medicine is very personal, people want to like a physician before they ever go to see him or her, Quinn said. If doctors don’t give potential patients a chance to learn about them, patients will choose someone else they will feel comfortable with.

3. You’re missing an opportunity to educate. Because of the frequency with which patients look online for health care information, Dr. Luks said, physicians who aren’t contributing to that content are missing a great opportunity.

“Digital media and social media enable us to teach anyone and everyone around the globe who wants to learn about their particular disease process,” he said. “And why should we only be able to share our knowledge and experience with people we interact with within the four walls of our practice?”

4. There’s no outlet for people to sing your praises. Quinn said having a place for feedback on a website makes people aware that the physician cares what their patients think. People are less likely to say negative things when they know the doctor they are complaining about will see it, she said. And the people who want to say negative things anyway? They will say those things regardless of whether you are online. But not being online prevents physicians from seeing and responding to those complaints and concerns.

5. You’re not in control of your own brand. When physicians don’t create the content people see about them online, they are leaving the job up to others — patient review sites and hospital and health plan physician finder sites. Thomas said physicians run the risk of someone else setting up a page for their business on location and review sites like Google Places and Yelp. She said search engines could pull information from other sources and create business profiles based on what they find. “It’s to a physician’s advantage to take the reins and claim these listings,” she said.

6. You’re missing an opportunity to improve office efficiency. If patients visit Dr. Luks’ website before a first-time visit, they usually have taken advantage of the online forms he provides. They also know what to expect, because he has videos on his site with information about him, his practice and common medical issues. It all leads to more efficient visits and time well-spent in the exam room.

“Online access does not just provide an information source, said Jason Hwang, MD, an internist and executive director of health care at Innosight Institute, a San Francisco-based research organization focusing on education and health care. “It’s patients taking action.”

He studied the impact of an online scheduling system that was put into place by HealthPartners, a nonprofit health care organization in Minnesota. He found that wait times for an appointment were reduced from 17.8 days to 4.2 days, with many patients able to get same-day appointments.

7. You might lose out on recommendations. When patients have a good experience, Dr. Luks said, they are more likely to recommend you to friends and acquaintances through social media. But if they can’t find you online, they probably won’t make the recommendation.

“Personally, I feel to ignore the intersection between health care and social media is to potentially ignore our own relevance as a health care practitioner during the next, I’ll say, decade,” he said.

Dr. Luks said 15% of his patients came to him because they found him online. “To not have a digital presence is simply unacceptable, and you are losing business because of it, period,” he said.

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