Managing The Online Reputation Of Your Medical Practice

Whether setting up your practice from scratch or running an existing medical centre, many roles must be maintained to service all facets of a business.

Marketing may not be high on the list of priorities when planning your practice set up, yet your reputation is slowly building from the first moment you mention your new medical centre to someone.

From the point of when your medical practice opens its doors, every patient is a potential source of review or reputation, online or through word of mouth referrals. It’s worth noting that these sources of reputation are both considered important to potential clients searching online. The fact that online reviews are complete strangers to those reading them appears to have little effect on their perceived validity.

Online or not, ideally the reputation of the practice should reflect the current values and culture within the practice. Being aware of how your practice is viewed by clients may instigate positive change within your practice that would not be possible for those that subscribe to the attitude of ignorance is bliss.

I didn’t list my practice yet, how is it online?

Even if you are yet to build a website or connect on social media, your practice will most likely find its way onto the internet eventually. In the same way, general practitioners can have their details listed online, often unbeknownst to them.

So if you didn’t put that information there who did? The short answer is anybody can. It could be a customer, you may have given your details to someone and that information is then passed at some point as part of a database to an online directory.

The downside of this is that if the information they have collected is incorrect, incomplete or inconsistent with your true details this can reduce your credibility online but more importantly frustrate potential customers. After all, it is hard to control how someone finds our business online, but we can try to ensure that their first step is successful in connecting with your practice.

Taking control of your online presence from the start

Your online listings in their most basic form will include your contact details, location and opening hours. Where your online reputation comes into focus is when your business is listed on a directory that provides an option to review your service.

The first step though is purely taking control of all online listings. This will help avoid customer disappointment should your basic contact details be incorrect. For example, a client travels to your practice only to find it was listed at the wrong location.

This has been of particular concern when a practice has opened up to find that a medical practice with exactly the same name has recently closed nearby. It is even more distressing for those practice owners to find that a Google search prioritises the old trusted listing over theirs and that it has ‘Permanently Closed’ in red underneath their name. Resolving these issues can take several months with Google. Knowing these listings before you open will provide time in which to remove the listing, and in that particular case, the negative review that was attached to the old medical centre.

Depending on how long you have had your practice will most likely dictate how long collecting these listings will take. Most of these online listings will allow you to request that access be provided to change the details or at the very least to submit an update.

Secondly having access to these listings that offer the ability for customers to review, will allow you to reply or at least flag them with the organisation that holds the listing. Often when you have a review come through, those directories will notify you by email. So it is wise to use an email that is actively monitored to avoid the need to trawl your listings.

Key areas to manage for online reputation

Although your business listing can range far and wide across the internet, reviews and comments are generally posted on a small number of popular websites. These main websites and search engines that patients post their reviews should rate high in priority for gaining access and managing.

Google Business Listing. If only concentrating on one area of your online presence, having this listing correctly set up is time well spent. That’s because Google searches specific for your business are a highly trusted online source of information and reviews. Having up to date content and an idea of what people are saying about your business is worth noting as potential customers will most likely value these above the ones listed below.

Facebook Business Page. A great place to connect with the community and keep patients informed of events and information related to your practice. If you plan on starting up a Facebook Business Page yourself then be sure to turn off the ‘Reviews’ tab in your page settings. This is because National Law prohibits the use of testimonials to advertise regulated health services. It is important therefore that you or the person in control of the social media for the practice understand and comply with AHPRA’s Social Media Policy described here.

Local Directories. There is a long list of local directories that may list your details so to make life easier it would be best to start with those that have reviews as part of their make up. True Local, Yelp, Bing, HotFrog, Yalwa and Yellow Pages Online are some of the main online directories worth checking for your listing. Although some of these directories cater mainly to food and entertainment they do allow for the listing of medical centres.

Healthcare Related Directories. Directories specific to Healthcare may not have the capacity to review your practice but instead may review individual doctors. Other medical practices you are in competition with may be listed on these sites, so they are good to join regardless of reviews, as their popularity may see them used more often than other generic directories. Such directories include the Government-run National Health Services Directory and independent Whitecoat Healthcare and HealthShare directories.

With all directories please be sure to check if changes to your details need to be paid as some require a subscription after submitting your information for ‘free’.

Assessing, establishing and monitoring an online reputation

A self-assessment of your current online presence in directories and any associated reviews is simple enough to do but requires patience, organisation, and time. The directories must be found, control of them transferred to your practice, corrections to details made and where applicable responses to reviews addressed.

Online Reputation Management software is available to assist the above as can outsourcing the task to a medical marketing service that understands the requirement and restraints of regulated health services.

Once you have an overview of what listings you have, note that some directories can be set up to send an alert when a review is published to the email you used to set up the account.

When that review appears in your inbox, it can either create a warm fuzzy feeling or one of dread, yet before responding, there is much to consider. So instead of a patellar reflex, a pause and a cup of tea is wise.

Dealing With Negative Reviews

Whether positive or negative, any review is best approached calmly and objectively.

Keeping a level head is easier said than done though when a much-liked staff member is attacked or the reputation of the practice is unjustly represented.

As hard as it may be, several perspectives should be taken into account, such as the patient’s point of view, how the public will review both the review and response and finally how the response will fit into current AHPRA advertising guidelines.

The ideal scenario for negative reviews is to check that the person reviewed is a patient and contact them privately to resolve. If successful then they may reconsider their appraisal and remove or at the very least amend to a more positive review.

If the reviewer is not recognisable as a patient then a polite request for them to contact the practice manager to discuss could be in order. This can be used to demonstrate that the practice takes its duty of care to the community seriously.

As the contents of consultations are private, any mention in a review of what has transpired within a doctors appointment should be grounds for the review to be removed. The same will apply to slander or threats to medical or reception staff. Some reviews may be borderline in this regard, but it is still worth approaching the website that holds the review to determine if the reviewer is breaching their guidelines.

Some reviews are unreasonable ie ‘I don’t understand why I couldn’t bring my shopping trolley into the waiting room area’ so not responding may say more than acknowledging that which is clearly without logic.

A response should be polite and professional while minimising the damage to the reputation of your practice. As for how promptly the response should be, that depends on the nature of the review and where it has been posted. Irate reviews should perhaps be addressed a few days later when the effects of their ire have subsided and the chances of an angry reply are less so. If polite in their review and the criticism is fair and reasonable an immediate response may help resolve the situation.

When a review is unfounded and damaging but manages to sound plausible and be within the publisher’s guidelines, the response is harder to manage. As these reviews are likely viewed as credible by an online audience, serious consideration should be given to a response. An example could be ‘We value the wellbeing of our staff and the reputation we have worked hard to establish and maintain, so our practice manager would be happy to address your concerns in private and at a time that suits you.’

Should a review be openly abusive, threatening or defamatory, then this may violate the publisher’s review content guidelines. In this case simply ‘flagging’ the review in Google Business will have the content forwarded to their moderators. Most other platforms have a similar system as they will most likely wish to protect their interests from legal action.

Failing that, legal action may be the only course remaining. Some would argue otherwise, but perhaps they are yet to witness the dramatic effect of phones ceasing to ring after a slanderous review. More importantly, the impact of online slander is hard to imagine unless you have been in those shoes. Obviously, there is considerable stress when your work is judged without the opportunity to explain yourself. Perhaps if all businesses were to enlist this approach, some people would think twice before deliberately making a false statement publicly with the intent to sully a business or personal reputation.

Regardless of the course of action, taking on those difficult reviews can at least show that your medical practice cares about its reputation and more importantly the wellbeing of all medical and reception staff. In this sense a practice that defends its staff may have more appeal not only to patients but to those prospective doctors, nurses and reception staff searching your profile online before submitting a job application.

Getting The Most Out Of Positive Reviews

There is nothing wrong with taking credit where it is due and showing your appreciation for a clients words of encouragement. The same rules for negative reviews apply here, in keeping the response simple and professional, without disclosing any information that is private or of a clinical nature.

A commitment of care and praise of staff can once again feature as part of these responses to highlight the values of the practice to those who view the reviews in the future. After all most reviews will be there for good, so responding to both positive and negative reviews will demonstrate an active interest in caring about what clients past, current and future, have to say.

Note that as tempting as it may be, never fabricate positive reviews as doing so will most likely have you banned from those directories and generally with no recourse. Of course, there are fake reviews out there and they are often easy to spot. Although a competitor may be doing this it is not a long term game and energy is better spent in addressing genuine reviews and creating a better experience for patients so that feedback can happen naturally.

How do I get patients to review the practice?

The word ‘natural’ best describes the ideal strategy for reviews, that being a patient was happy with the service and reflects that in what they post online. To supplement this long term natural approach one option is to request reviews, yet this requires a certain amount of planning and tact. For example, you may begin the process by requesting patient feedback at reception. Those top tier positive responses from long term patients could then provide a shortlist of clients willing to review the practice.

This shortlist is then divided up into who has the most rapport with each patient, the doctor, practice nurse or reception staff. Identifying these relationships will assist in the approach taken to ask for a review. Close relationships will suit a direct approach where the review process is catered to both their preferred contact medium such as SMS or email as well as the platforms they use. For example, if they have a Gmail account then a Google review will be fairly straight forward. If this is not the case, simply asking them if they are on Facebook and to like the practice page will ensure the opportunity to build your online reputation is not lost.

For new practices or practices where the above is not practical, then less personable approaches to reviewing may apply. This could mean a review prompt as part of a practice newsletter, a poster at reception or as part of the patient registration form. Note that the less personal these review prompts the more likely that reviews will be a mixture of positive and negative feedback.

Building your practice reputation

If you are planning on opening a practice or reviewing a current one, why wait for the next review. Investing time in looking at what will complement the patient experience within a consultation will go further than online reviews. It can generate the most trusted form of advertising – word of mouth. What your patients say to others will hold more value than an online review or glossy brochure. Maximising the quality of a patient experience is no easy task as many factors within and out of our control are contributors. For example, staff may be able to be trained to greet patients when they enter yet an emergency within the practice that delays doctors from seeing their patients cannot be avoided.

Seeking the most achievable and low-cost improvements may bear significant results in patient satisfaction. This could be as simple as checking the phone manner of receptionists and making suggestions or developing strategies for demanding clients. Think of this process as to how you would physically improve a practice, there is no point buying a new couch for patients if the bin next to it is overflowing with rubbish. Putting a system in place to have the rubbish cleaned will cost only time. In the same sense look for what will positively influence a patient experience beyond the doctor being on time.

Once the inexpensive essentials are sorted, then money can be invested in improving those processes and systems that will complement good customer service. How easy is it to book with your practice online? Does the practice have sufficient parking and if so are patients aware? Are those items that are bulk billed clearly defined from those services where an out of pocket expense applies? Are all new staff properly trained in phone and front desk patient interaction? Are all clients made aware of your cancellation policies when they book an appointment? Once items like these are addressed buying a new waiting room couch will be the cherry on top rather than a practice prop.

Accessing, managing and monitoring your offline and online reputation is an ongoing process. Investing time in that process will ultimately mean that your medical centre is listed online in the best possible light to those searching you, your staff or your practice.

Nicky Jardine has had many years of experience providing practice setup and management services across Australia. Her hands-on knowledge of medical practice management for a diverse range of medical centres means that she can offer a wide range of options. That could be dealing with matters like negative reviews to resolving complex issues that form the basis of client complaints.

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Alexandra Headland, QLD 4572