Healthcare Survey: How Do Patients Choose Providers Online?

We conducted a survey to understand the healthcare decisions respondents made for themselves or on behalf of a family member using online resources. A family member can include a child, spouse, or aging parent. Decisions were around providers, meaning doctors, clinics, hospitals, and health systems.

The Screener and Methodology

We began the survey with a short screening. If answers to the screener’s questions do not apply to the respondent, we exited that respondent out of the survey automatically. We looked for respondents who lived in a U.S. state, were 26-64 years old, made the majority of the healthcare decisions for themselves and their family, and had a consumer primary health insurance plan.

Consumer plans included an employer’s health insurance coverage (yours or your significant other’s), self-purchased private company coverage, or purchased through a state health insurance exchange (healthcare.gov). Consumer plans did not include government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, VA, TriCare, or other military benefits programs, or coverage by a parent’s insurance plan.

Our survey results in this post also do not include anyone who wasn’t sure of their insurance plan name or who do not have health insurance. The last part of the screener assessed whether the respondent used the internet to find a new healthcare provider in the past two years.

The Kinds of Questions We Asked

Business Listings

  • How do people search for providers?
  • Where do they start their search? (search engine, map, etc. – does it matter based on what you are looking for?)
  • Do they shop for doctors or hospitals? Do you search for an individual doctor’s name?
  • Do they start with a branded term – i.e. the name of a health care system or HMO?
  • Do they search by a specialty or a condition?
  • If one provider’s listing has more detail than another’s (credentials, hours, ratings, etc.) does that influence your decision making?

Consumption of Online Ratings and Reviews

  • Are consumers using online ratings and reviews to choose a healthcare provider (doctor, hospital, clinic)?
  • For what type of care? (urgent/emergent vs. elective vs. chronic specialty care)
  • If so, how often are they looking at them and what sites do they trust?

Influence and Trust of Online Ratings and Reviews

  • How are consumers using online reviews to make decisions about healthcare providers?
  • Is there a difference between trust in first party sites (hospital- or practice-owned) and independent third party sites (Google, Major Review Site, Healthgrades)?
  • What are consumers perceptions of online reviews about healthcare providers?
  • How much does it influence their decision to choose a healthcare provider?
  • How much do they trust online reviews vs. a personal recommendation from a family member or friend? How about another doctor?
  • What is more important to the decision maker – the star ratings or the actual qualitative information in the free text?
  • Have you ever left an online review for a healthcare provider?
  • What is the expectation around response to online reviews?

The Results

The answers of who makes the majority of the healthcare decisions for themselves and their families was interesting to see broken down by gender. It appears that females make slightly more of the decisions than males do.

But while 87% say they make the majority of healthcare decisions for themselves and their family, 65% say they don’t have children living in their home when those decisions are made. That implies that most of the female respondents make healthcare decisions for themselves, not dependents.

The breakdown of insurance types is that 63% of respondents’ health insurance is covered by their employers, while 19.02% is covered by a government program like Medicare, Medicaid, VA, TriCare, or other military benefits programs.

When asked in the last year, what they’ve spent the most time researching online, respondents said “healthcare providers” more than retirement or automobile purchases. In fact, 64% have used the internet to research a healthcare provider in the past 2 years, and of them, it’s not surprising that:

  • 87% say it’s for a primary care provider,
  • 70% say it’s for a specialist, and
  • 51% say it’s for urgent care or the emergency room.

But it’s more interesting that people use reviews more on other sites than government sites:

  • 13% medicare.gov,
  • 16% Facebook,
  • 21% Major Review Site,
  • 48% doctor office/hospital site,
  • 59% Healthgrades/Vitals, and
  • 65% Google!

Respondents use Google 5 times more than medicare.gov! For Healthgrades’ percentage it’s 4-5 times more. A local doctor office’s site is used 3.8 times more.

In the last 12 months, 46% of respondents have used the internet to evaluate a doctor, hospital, or clinic. 82% of respondents have read online reviews to evaluate a healthcare provider and 80% of them claim these ratings and reviews actually influenced their decisions to select a provider. This is a big jump from the just 37% of respondents from our 2016 survey last year who used reviews sites to select a new primary care physician:

Breaking down this question by red/blue state affiliation shows that both are almost equally likely to use star ratings/reviews to choose a provider, with a very slight edge of red states over blue states:

The largest jump in our survey occurs at the question of trust. Respondents have the highest trust for:

  • Google 30.74%
  • Healthgrades 37.69% to
  • medicare.gov’s 3.80%.

That means they trust Google 8 times more than medicare.gov and Healthgrades 10 times more!

Broken down by age, this question of trust shows that younger respondents trust Google the most, and all other age groups trust HealthGrades/Vitals/WebMD/ZocDoc the most. All age groups trust medicare.gov the least, except for ages 18-29 which trust a Major Review Site the least.

When looking at a doctor’s online reviews, the three most important factors when deciding where to go to for care were “how positive the reviews are” (73%), “review recency” (72%), and “overall star rating” 54%. Less important is, “number of reviews the doctor has” (45%), “if the patient reviews have a response from the doctor/provider” (26%), “if the patient reviews were written by a verified or veteran reviewer” (21%), and lastly, the “length of the reviews” (9%).

60% of respondents said a healthcare provider must have a minimum of 4 out of 5 stars for the respondents to use them. And the majority (44%) said they read 6-10 patient reviews to fairly assess the provider. To impact their decision to use a provider, the majority (40%) say an online review must have been written within the last six months, and 25% say it must have been written within the last year.

68% of respondents have selected one provider over another provider based on star ratings or online reviews. Respondents aged 18-44 did do so slightly more than respondents aged 60+.

56% of respondents said they would not pay more out of pocket to see a doctor with better online reviews, but 66% said they would be willing to wait longer. When broken down by age, 18-19 year old respondents were more likely than other age ranges to pay more out of pocket, but were not that much more likely than other demographics to wait.