Understanding Patient Behavior Online

Patients often go through several steps to gather information online before they ever make an appointment and walk into your office. As a medical practice, it’s important to understand how patients behave online so that you can cater your marketing efforts to these behaviors.

The internet is a vast hub of information, which is great for creating informed patients. However, it’s also very easy for patients to find incorrect or highly-biased information that can lead them in the wrong direction. While this is frustrating for healthcare providers to deal with, there is also opportunity to be that trusted source of information for patients.

Practices that understand patient behavior can tailor their online content and marketing efforts to address the different ways patients seek information online. You can ensure that your patients are getting good, reliable information to make well-informed decisions about their health.

These are some of the ways patients seek information online, and what you can do to address them and improve your patient acquisition in the process.

1. Researching symptoms & possible conditions

You’ve probably dealt with several patients who have turned to “Dr. Google” to research their symptoms to figure out what they might have. While it’s great that patients are engaged in learning how to get healthy, Google, as you know, is not always the best place to figure that out. You start plugging in symptoms, and just about every search will say that you might have cancer. As a result, you end up seeing a worried patient who is afraid they might be dying, when in reality it could be a minor problem.

In fact, researching symptoms online is so common that in 2010, Google researchers started tracking search trends for flu symptoms with the “Google Flu Tracker,” and found that flu-related search trends correlated closely with the CDC’s research on the prevalence of flu symptoms.

Though frustrating to deal with as a doctor, it’s not likely that patients will stop turning to the internet for this information. While Google is at least trying to guide patients to good information with the addition of Knowledge Boxes that provide information from the Mayo Clinic when patients search for certain symptoms or illnesses, that doesn’t prevent patients from trying to self-diagnose.

How to Address It

Be prepared to address those concerns when patients come into your office. It’s easy to dismiss information patients found on the internet; after all, you’re the one with the medical degree. However, patients are more likely to be reassured if you actually take the time to talk with them, rather than lecture to them about Googling symptoms. Take it as an opportunity to educate and build trust with your patients, and point them to online resources that you trust. Even better, create content for your own website to provide patients with a trusted source of information.

2. Looking for information about a diagnosis

Even after patients have received a diagnosis, they’re likely to go online to look for more information, including causes, treatments, prognosis, etc. For their part, Google is trying to point patients to reputable sources when patients perform these types of searches. Their recent Medic update impacted several healthcare websites, but was ultimately intended to help patients find good information from highly-authoritative sources. The Knowledge Boxes with Mayo Clinic information also help point patients to good resources for these types of searches.

Google Knowledge Box for Flu

Google is also making a shift from trying to provide answers to understanding more about the user’s journey. A lot of Google’s more recent updates have focused on better understanding user intent and search context, and providing results that better match that intent, rather than trying to give definitive answers. They’re taking note of past searches and previously-visited websites as a way of understanding where patients are in their information-seeking journey, and serving results based on that intent. Whether a patient is in the initial stage of seeking out treatment options, or is ready to book an appointment with a specialist, Google is seeking to align search results to those needs.

How to Address It

While your practice’s website can’t really compete with Google’s Knowledge Boxes, you can make sure that you provide content that addresses patients’ needs at different points in their journeys. This includes not only answering questions about a particular diagnosis, but also demonstrating your expertise in the available treatment options and directing patients to next steps for booking an appointment. Today, practices are having to cut through a lot of noise to grab the attention of patients online. Providing content that guides patients through that journey could help you stand out with patients, which ultimately helps your search presence.

3. Looking for a doctor & comparing providers

If a patient doesn’t have a specific doctor in mind, it’s a safe assumption that they’re going online to find a doctor and compare options. Or, maybe they got a referral from a primary care provider, but want to see if there are other options. Maybe they know what type of specialist they need to see, or maybe they don’t. All of that to say, even searching for a provider online can be a multi-staged process.

Review sites like Healthgrades, RateMDs, and many others come into play here, as patients compare their options. As patients narrow down their list of options, providers’ websites can also help confirm or rule out potential options.

How to Address It

First, make sure you are regularly collecting reviews from patients. Positive average ratings are important to having your review profiles rank in searches for providers, but equally (if not more) important are the quantity and recency of your reviews. A reputation marketing service is the easiest way to regularly collect reviews from patients while they are in your office.

Your review profiles should also link to your website so that potential patients can learn more about you. With that said, you have to make sure your website clearly showcases your specialties and expertise to help patients decide whether or not you are the right choice. Then, you need to make it easy for them to get an appointment, either via a phone call or an online form. Make that information easily accessible on every page so that patients don’t have to go searching for it.

Address All Stages of Online Behavior & Improve Patient Acquisition

As you can see, patients are turning to online sources throughout their process of seeking healthcare. Sometimes patients find a provider in the exact order outlined above; sometimes they jump back and forth in the process.

While it may be frustrating at times that patients go online to seek information that may or may not be accurate, that behavior is unlikely to change. As patients become more empowered, they want to take charge of their healthcare decisions. As a provider, you can help patients in this process by providing good, well-vetted information, clearly explaining your specialties, and showcasing your expertise and training related to your specialties.

All of this allows you to have a better conversation with your patients when they get to your office. When you provide the right information online, you not only get more of the right patients for your practice, but you also have well-informed patients who are more engaged.