Patients Trust Online Reviews as Much as Doctor Recommendations

And other shocking facts about transparency in healthcare

Businesses everywhere are feeling the pressure to be more transparent. Online ratings and reviews started with retail shopping and quickly expanded from there, becoming fixtures on the web.

There’s one industry that continues to lag on transparency, and that’s healthcare. In a world of unprecedented visibility, health systems keep a lot of information under wraps. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), in fact, have only this year made a concerted push for price transparency, and few organizations have gotten on board. Fewer still offer transparency on quality.

Health systems that fall behind on transparency do so at their own peril. A recent NRC Health Market Insights survey — fielding responses from more than 3,000 patients — uncovered just how much consumers want to see transparency from their healthcare providers.

Here are four crucial insights to consider.

1) Patients depend on reviews to guide their decisions

Most people would guess that online reviews play a part in consumer decision-making, but they might be surprised by just how many consumers are influenced by them. NRC Health’s research found that 92.4% of consumers use online reviews to guide most of their ordinary purchasing decisions. That’s an astonishing majority, and it shows how far the transparency revolution has come.

This effect has made itself felt in healthcare, too. More than a third (34.7%) of patients say a doctor’s online reputation is very important — a higher percentage than in any other industry. Further, six in 10(59.9%) patients say they’ve selected a doctor based on positive reviews, and nearly the same percentage (60.8%) say they’ve avoided doctors based on negative reviews.

It’s worth noting, too, how early these reviews come into a patient’s decision-making process. Over one-third (37%) of patients used online reviews as their very first step in searching for a new doctor — before even asking a family member! And even when getting a recommendation from someone they trusted, approximately one out of five (20.8%) patients used online reviews to verify what that friend or family member had told them.

In many cases, patients are showing an increasing reliance on reviews.

2) Patients invest their trust in online reviews

Patients believe that online ratings and reviews deserve their confidence. When asked if they trusted online ratings and reviews more than personal recommendations, 83.3% of patients said yes.

What’s more, today’s patients (47.5%*) trust online ratings and reviews as much as a recommendation from their doctor (46.8%*).

* Standard error = 1.8%

3) Patients want a lot of reviews — and they’d better be high quality

When making a shopping decision, the word of one person is seldom enough to convince anybody. A crowd, however, can be more persuasive. The number of people it takes to move the needle varies by industry. In healthcare, the magic number appears to be seven.

However, not just any ratings and reviews will do. Patients need to see a certain level of quality in an online rating before they’ll give it their vote of confidence. The date of the review is important in this respect. If reviews are older than 18 months, 66.1% of healthcare consumers consider them out of date and 19.8% draw the line at just six months.

It’s also best to offer a balanced perspective: 59.1% of patients say that positive and negative reviews are equally valuable to them. If patients see only positive reviews for a provider, 59.9% report that the reviews make them suspicious.

Finally, the circumstances of feedback collection also leave an impression on patients. Just 26.1% of patients say they trust ratings from consumers who volunteered to leave a review on their own.

This skepticism arises because these reviews are typically anonymous and unverified. Contrast that with reviews from verified customers, like one might see on Amazon or Uber, where consumers are given the opportunity to leave a review in connection with a verified purchase of goods and services. Verification on platforms like this lend reviews extra credibility, which is why 51.2% of consumers prefer to see feedback that arises from official survey responses rather than anonymous reviews left online.

The full transparency commitment

Providing consumers with transparency into care quality, pricing and the patient experience are the first steps toward achieving the authentic engagement that every health system wants to see from their patients.


About the Author | Andrew Ibbotson

Andrew Ibbotson is general manager at NRC Health.