CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For most marketplaces, online reviews and social media have effectively supplanted word-of-mouth from friends and neighbors as the go-to source for service provider recommendations. The health care marketplace is no exception, and according to research from a University of Illinois expert who studies operations management, various service-quality proxies from online reviews can be studied to determine the relationship between those measures and a patient’s choice of physician.
Four service features – bedside manner, diagnosis accuracy, waiting time and service time – disproportionately affect a physician’s online demand for patient care, said Yuqian Xu, a professor of business administration at Illinois.
“An online market for health care is a relatively new phenomenon, and previous research has only considered the reviews and what people write,” Xu said. “This paper positions itself as the first study of how patients choose doctors in this online marketplace, under the impact of information from online reviews. Broadly speaking, this paper shows how to incorporate social media information into a choice model to derive relationships between operational factors in health care delivery and patient choices.”
Xu and co-authors used data mining to comb through physician reviews from nearly 900 physicians in the U.S. from one of the leading online medical appointment booking platforms. The 145 days of physician appointment data from November 2014 to April 2015 contained the number of appointment slots offered over a 30-day window and the total number of appointments booked per day, according to the paper.
In addition to identifying the top four service benchmarks that patients cared about when choosing doctors in an online market, the researchers also found that improving a physician’s overall rating increased demand and patient utility by up to 7 and 5 percentage points, respectively.
But homing in and targeting those four measures for specific improvement can increase demand and utility even further, Xu said.
“In the health care marketplace, there hasn’t been a lot of investigation into how social media or online reviews influence patient choice,” Xu said. “In the past, when you book an appointment with a doctor, it’s over the phone or you’re referred by your friends, insurance provider or another doctor. But now these review sites are a growing industry for the online health care market. Patients can actually go online and specify insurance, location and specialty, and can see all the reviews and even the appointment book of the doctor. The patient has much more information and control compared with before.”
Which means patients are much more empowered with information, Xu said.
“The platform is actually changing patients’ behavior, as well as changing the way in which health care is becoming more responsive to the idea that consumers have more choice,” she said.
According to Xu, it’s ultimately moving the health care industry more toward a service industry model.
“Within this online market, doctors compete with each other for patients, which should motivate doctors to provide better service because information is becoming more transparent,” she said. “It’s like watching an industry evolve in real time. And I also think it’s likely where the entire health care industry is going to go.”
For physicians, the big takeaway is that what patients “talk about in their online reviews may not actually be the factor that leads other patients to choose a certain doctor,” Xu said.
“They may have some negative comments on many service features, but our work shows that ultimately only the four most important factors are the ones that are paramount,” she said. “If you’re a doctor, you would want to concentrate on improving in those four key areas, because they significantly affect patient choice. To be sure, doctors need to focus on the diagnosis aspect of care – that’s a given. But the softer, high-touch aspects of service is something they also really ought to pay attention to.”
Xu’s co-authors are Mor Armony and Anindya Ghose, both of the Stern Business School of New York University.