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Your digital front door starts well before your web site

By Andrew Ibbotson, NRC Health


Your digital front door strategy is key to attracting new patients and building the kind of brand awareness and loyalty that keeps them coming back. Having a strong digital presence is especially necessary during this time of growing consumerism in healthcare, and its importance has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many healthcare providers still don’t realize that their digital front door extends well beyond their Web site. We have to continually remind ourselves that patients are consumers living in an online, on-demand, and reputation-driven economy. Because of the technology we use every day, the patient experience begins long before anyone calls to schedule an appointment or steps into a doctor’s office. It usually begins with an online search. Dr. David Feinberg, who runs Google Health, recently told attendees at a Texas conference that Google receives more than 1 billion health-related questions every day, equivalent to 70,000 searches every minute.1

According to our own research at NRC Health, 77 percent of patients begin their healthcare search online, making it critically important for hospitals and health systems to proactively manage and optimize their digital footprint across the four key channels used by consumers: 1) desktop search,

Key Board Takeaways

Board members can hold the organization’s marketing executives accountable to achieving the goals laid out in this article by asking and following up on the following questions:

  • How are we managing the organization’s online reputation?
  • What are we doing to manage our business listings (across popular consumer Web sites like Google, Yelp, Facebook, Healthgrades, Vitals, and WebMD)?
  • How are we making it easier for consumers to engage with us (i.e., appointment scheduling on our Web site and Google, interactive chat on our Web site and Google, virtual visits through our Web site and third-party direc-tory sites)?
  • How transparent is our organization today with consumers and what do you think is achievable in the next 24 months?

2) mobile search, 3) maps, and 4) voice search. The goals of your digital front door strategy should be:

  • To be easily found by consumers
  • To effectively engage consumers online
  • To convert consumers to patients
  • To deliver a frictionless experience
  • To grow loyalty

To achieve these goals, many healthcare systems find that transparency is key. Patients are increasingly searching for answers to questions like, “Best urgent care near me that is open now and accepts Aetna insurance.” Let’s break this question down to its key components and explore each one in more detail.

Exhibit 1: Example of Strong Local and Organic Search Results

Source: CityMD, NRC Health client example.

Managing Your Online Reputation—Who Has the “Best” Doctors?

When patients begin their healthcare search, it’s critically important to come up at the top of both local and organic search results to maximize your visibility and Web traffic. According to data from Google Trends, there’s been a more than 400 percent increase in local healthcare searches since 2016. “Near me” and “best” searches now dominate in healthcare.

Even more important is making sure the experience you provide is accurately represented online when patients “Google” your organization, or one of your providers, by name. Today’s uncomfortable truth is that 81 percent of patients will read reviews about a provider, even after they have been referred by another doctor.2

Owning your online reputation consists of three key initiatives:

  1. Publishing verified “first-party” ratings and comments from your patient experience surveys on your own Web site and provider profile pages.
  2. Giving every patient the opportunity to leave a review on the third-party Web sites that matter most to healthcare consumers (Google, Yelp, Facebook, Healthgrades, Vitals, WebMD).
  3. Proactively managing your business listings and responding to online patient reviews.

It’s a little-known fact that, if a Google search contains the word “best,” only listings with 4 stars or higher will appear in local search results. The national average for healthcare providers is 3.8 out of 5 stars based on less than 10 total reviews per provider. By contrast, organizations that give patients the opportunity to rate their experience and leave a review have an average rating of 4.6—based on feedback from more than 125 verified patients per provider, per year.

According to Harvard Business School, a one-star increase in your online reputation can translate into a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue. If you just cross your fingers and leave your reputation to chance, you will be harder to find and less likely to be chosen.3

Accessibility—Who Is “Near Me” and “Open Now”?

If you have done a good job of attract-ing consumers to your Web site and business listings, you need to engage them with the content and information they’re looking for in order to convert those consumers to patients.

Some of the most critical factors patients consider when deciding where to seek care include:

  • Accurate location data and hours of operation
  • Online self-scheduling
  • Same-day appointments and virtual visits
  • Estimated wait times for emergency and urgent care

Market-leading healthcare providers are rapidly adding these capabilities not just to their own Web sites, but also making them available on their Google My Business (GMB) listings, third-party directory sites, and through voice assistants like Alexa and Siri.

Over the past 12 months, we have seen a steady increase in the use of technologies like online chat to help patients explore symptoms, triage their needs, and navigate them to the appropriate site of care. And since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many of the health systems we work with are reporting a sixfold increase in the use of telehealth services.

Healthcare providers are scrambling to offer virtual visits that allow patients to complete a visit from the safety and comfort of their home without exposing them to crowded and potentially infectious clinical locations. And they are realizing the added benefit of helping to route low-acuity visits away from their emergency departments.

Insurance and Pricing—“How Much Is This Going to Cost”?

To ensure that telehealth services are available to as many people as possible during this crisis, the Federal Communications Commission initiated a $200 million program to fund telehealth services for medical providers. But patients continue to pay more out of their own pocket every year. In fact, patients as a group are now the fastest-growing “payer” in healthcare.

Simply informing patients that you accept their health insurance plan is no longer going to be enough to remain competitive. Patients are increasingly demanding up-front estimates of what they should expect to pay. Mandates like the new hospital price transparency rule are just the next step in a growing movement of increased transparency in healthcare. In addition to being able to read unfiltered patient ratings and reviews on your Web site, patients are looking for price information that’s easy to access and understand.

Exhibit 2: Example of Strong First- and Third-Party Reviews

Source: Summit Medical Group, NRC Health client example.

Patients Will Choose Ease

At the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of patients will choose ease. You need to be easy to find, easy to navigate, easy to choose, and easy to work with. Whenever possible, look for ways to engage patients at every major touchpoint of the patient journey using technology they have already adopted for everyday use—search, ratings and reviews, online scheduling, maps, voice, and video.

When implementing new technologies, make sure your digital front door experience complements the in-person interactions patients have with your caregivers and staff. Collect real-time feedback after each in-person and virtual experience so you can more accurately measure whether or not you’re living up to your brand promise. And follow up with patients in a timely manner to build trust and inspire loyalty. After all, today’s experience is tomorrow’s reputation.


1 Margi Murphy, “Dr. Google Will See You Now: Search Giant Wants to Cash in on Your Medical Queries,” The Telegraph, March 10, 2019.
2 Les Masterson, “Patients Want Providers with Strong Online Presence,” Healthcare Dive, May 21, 2018.
3 Michael Luca, “Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of Yelp.com,” Harvard Business School, Revised 2016.