Patients online drill deep for information on doctors, procedures
■ Physicians who don’t manage their online presence run the risk of failing to attract new patients.
By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Nov. 5, 2012
A majority of Americans looking up health information online are no longer merely researching symptoms. They are going online to determine which physicians to see, what treatment to get, and what services a hospital or pharmacy might provide — and using that information to drive their choices.
According to Manhattan Research, which surveyed 5,210 adults who use the Internet as a health resource, 54% of respondents said they did online research to decide what services they might need and who should provide them. Various surveys have said that roughly 75% of American adults search for health information online.
The findings reflect the trend of people becoming more comfortable with using the Internet for other aspects of their life and the natural progression they have made to using it for health-related decisions, said Maureen Malloy, senior research analyst for Manhattan Research. “We’ll see as the population of Internet users keeps growing, more people will be online for health,” she said.
Manhattan Research said 79% of patients diagnosed with a chronic disease in the previous three months, and already active online, used the Internet to influence their care decisions compared with 53% who were diagnosed a year earlier. (See correction)
Physicians may need to put more effort into beefing up their online presence so they can have greater control over it, allowing them to communicate who they are and what they do. One out of every five patients uses online health information to choose a primary care physician, according to Manhattan Research.
The survey did not ask patients what sites they visit to find information, but other surveys have found that the most popular online place for people to start health-related information gathering is a search engine, Malloy said. Search engines also are good places for physicians to start when they want to see if their online presence needs help, said Howard Luks, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in Hawthorne, N.Y., who consults on digital media and medicine issues.
“Just go out and Google your name, and you can see who is in control of your message,” Dr. Luks said.
Dr. Luks said physicians who are not managing their online presence are missing out on attracting new patients. His patients tell him every week that they are there because of what they found on his website.
“People want to trust you as a person,” he said. “They are going to pick you over the best hospital in the country because of the way you humanize your existence and your presence using tools like YouTube or Vimeo or a simple Web cam.”
If physicians don’t want to spend the time to build a website or create a social media presence, at least they can take control of their listings on rating sites, because those are most likely to come up at the top of a Google search, Dr. Luks said.
The most likely Web-savvy patients to use the Internet to influence their decisions on physicians and treatments were those with chronic conditions: angina, at 72%; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, 70%; and Crohn’s disease, 69%. Manhattan Research said this indicates that newly diagnosed chronic-care patients were taking steps to plan which doctors to see, what treatments are available, and which drugs and devices could be used to treat them.
Analysts said the number of patients using the Internet to pick their physicians and treatments could go up significantly when the insurance mandate of the Affordable Care Act takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014. The ACA is expected to add 30 million to the insured rolls starting in 2014, and many of those patients will be looking for a primary care doctor for the first time.
“The Internet is going to inform people that someone with the same skill set does, in fact, exist,” Dr. Luks said. “And I can see another person who appears to be equally as competent right down the street as ranked by X, Y and Z or discussed by six of my friends on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.”