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Leveraging Online Excellence

August 29, 2018

There’s little to be said for certain in such a rapidly-evolving world, but the internet sticking around is a safe horse to bet on, even in medicine. For many years, consumers relied mostly on recommendations from friends and family for healthcare information. We all know that word-of-mouth is the most effective form of marketing, but thanks to online forums ranging from social media to the Google stars which appear with most search results, that no longer means simply the information and reviews shared by friends and family.

The internet is such an easy go-to for gathering any information that it has finally supplanted friend and family recommendations as the number one source of healthcare information, according to PRC’s National Consumer Study. Nearly 3 in 4 consumers report that they use the internet to obtain healthcare information, a statistic which has continued to grow significantly year over year.

So what are consumers researching, and how does that impact healthcare? Nearly 9 out of 10 (87%) of consumers head online to research a diagnosis or condition, while 82% research prescriptions, and 74% check for symptoms.

From this, 41% of consumers say they have self-medicated, and 53% have tried solutions or treatments they found on the internet. This means that consumers are increasingly bypassing the doctor or a hospital and trying to fix their own health issues. While this reduces the number of patients seeking unnecessary care, it also likely means some are not seeking out care they should. And while 53% of consumers speak to their doctors about what they find on the internet, it can be challenging for doctors to work with the patient’s internet research and find beneficial ways of communicating with patients about online healthcare.

Doctors don’t want patients to feel they’re making a mistake by turning to “Dr. Google,” but they also don’t want them to fall into misinformation and inadvertently make themselves or a loved one sicker. It’s universally true that you cannot believe everything you read on the internet, but as it does seem that the worldwide web is here to stay and healthcare providers must know that no matter what, consumers will conduct their own healthcare research. Rather than wring hands over the negative consequences, providers need to instead embrace the research consumers have done and work with patients to give them the healthiest possible experience. The more consumers feel comfortable sharing what they find on the internet with their doctor, the less likely they’ll be to keep quiet and attempt resolve potentially serious medical issues on their own.

Considering this technological landscape, it’s tempting to declare telemedicine the absolute future of healthcare. In reality, this “future” is more subjective than it may seem. As with traditional healthcare, the sustainability of telemedicine relies heavily on the quality of the actual service. From ordering food for delivery, to shopping online, to having a voice-activated assistant in your own home, people enjoy and increasingly expect the creature comforts technology affords us. So should be easy for healthcare to jump on board, right?

Sadly, wrong. Alas, nothing good ever comes easy. While we all have certain expectations for our food, online shopping, and in-home assistants, healthcare is different. A healthy mind and body is the essence which enables us to do all the other fun things technology allows for, and can’t be treated lightly or as casually as the newest tech fad. To meet these expectations, hospitals must strive for excellence, not just being very good or acceptable. That means if consumers are going to use technology to communicate with a doctor, that tech service must also be excellent in the eyes of its users.

In 2010, PRC’s National Consumer Study found that 38% of consumers would be willing to use telemedicine, while 9% actually did use it. Of those users, a majority at 67% felt the care they received through telemedicine was excellent.

Two years later, the level of use remained steady at 9%, but interest had increased to 40%. However, the ratings of quality declined to just 30% excellent—nearly half of what it was in 2010. This drop in quality led to a decrease in use in 2014, from 9% to just 5%. However, consumers remained interested in telemedicine, as 42% now said they would be willing to try it. Despite the interest, ratings dropped again to just 19% of users feeling the quality was excellent, leading to another drop in use (4%) in 2015.

In 2015, however, quality began to improve, with 49% of telemedicine users rating their experience as being excellent. With that came an increase in use for 2017, up to 6%. As excellence continues to become the standard by which hospitals hold their telemedicine, use should consequently increase.

These ever-evolving numbers indicate a trend that as perceptions of the quality change, the changes in actual use follow. For telemedicine to truly be a viable option in healthcare, the same standards imposed on doctors and hospitals in-person need to be imposed on this technology. Provide excellent care through telemedicine, and more consumers will use it. Along with the adaptability necessary for telemedicine, understanding and working with all elements of online healthcare is critical to developing a trusting relationship with patients—the cornerstone of an excellent patient experience in any age.