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Social Media May Be the New Referral Service


When the Affordable Care Act kicks in, people will start thinking more carefully about their health care choices and going online to find reviews and ratings. Physicians who are ahead of the pack will be found first.

Despite new online opportunities, a recent report by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that geography and physician referral are still among the most important elements when parents are selecting a physician for their children.


According to the report, 65% of survey respondents indicated the importance of a convenient office location and 50% noted that recommendation from family and friends are a key element in their selection. Only 25% of respondents noted that a doctor’s online ratings were importan.

Jeff Ziegler, vice president of business/client development, and director of creative services for Crane Creek Communications, a medical marketing specialist company, was surprised by the results.

“That’s not what we’ve seen,” Ziegler says. “But that may be demographic, and it may also be geographic. From what we see, a lot of people are now looking at places like Angie’s List and Yelp for finding local doctors. They’re also looking at what their friends put on Facebook about their own doctors and tweets that medical practices are putting out.”

Changes coming

A closer inspection of the survey results indicates that Ziegler may have a point.

Forty-four percent of respondents younger than age 30 thought online ratings were important, compared with only 21% of respondents older than age 30. In addition, mothers were more likely (30%) to use online ratings than fathers (19%).

“We’re seeing a change,” Ziegler says. “The millennial generation is going to be leaning more toward that social media and those online review sites as a resource.”

This generation was teenagers when social media started to blossom in the early 2000s and now they’re having their own children, Ziegler points out.

“They’re the ones under 30 who are going to rely on the resources they’re used to using, which is the Internet,” he says. “It has become ubiquitous for them, and it’s now so important to them to see first-hand accounts, first-hand reviews for an individual. And that will become more prevalent with the next generation.”

The new word of mouth

In analyzing the terminology, is it possible that referrals from family and friends are becoming synonymous with social media? Is social media, in fact, the new physician referral system? Ziegler believes the answer to both questions is “yes,” and says that a preponderance of word-of-mouth referrals is going to be social media-related.

“Practices are always asking, ‘Should we have a Facebook page,’ and the answer is yes,” says Ziegler noting that current statistics indicate that only 20% of physicians have websites. “You want your patients to interact on there. And you want people to find that Facebook page before they come to your practice, because they’re going to see that people are happy to interact with you. They’re going to see what you’ve posted, and how you convert the language from medical-ese to layman’s terms. The last thing a doctor wants to do is blindly post links to AMA or JAMA articles on his website and not explain why it’s relevant to his patient population.”

Ziegler admits that the discrepancies in the trends he’s seen and those indicated in the University of Michigan survey could also be geographic in nature. He says that social media adoption may in fact be greater on the west coast than it is back east.

“It’s like that thing about the price of lettuce in California affecting the price of lettuce in Maine eventually,” he says. “It’s slowly creeping its way across the country.

Action steps

Ziegler tells of a physician he met recently who, together with several partners, purchased a hospital and plans to service a particular niche within the community. Since the physician said he receives 90% of his referrals from existing hospital relationships or insurance companies, he believes he doesn’t need a website or need social media. However, Ziegler disagrees.

“When the Affordable Care Act kicks in and people actually start thinking more carefully about their health care choices, he’s going to be left behind,” Ziegler says. “He’s not going to have a web presence, and any reviews or postings about him or his service or bed side manner or lack of ability to make appointments online is going to bite him in the backside.”

Ziegler says that people, if they aren’t already, are going to look for more and more convenient ways to select their providers, and for convenient ways to schedule an appointment that suits their need. They will look online for that.

“Those who sprint ahead now and get their websites set up, start getting their ducks in a line in terms of their reviews, they will be found first,” Ziegler says. “They will be the ones that will fill up with new patients when people start searching for their new physician once the Affordable Care Act kicks in.”

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