Before the internet, getting medical care was a relatively straightforward process. If you needed a new primary care physician (PCP), you’d get a recommendation from your insurance company, ask a friend, or check the yellow pages. If you needed a checkup or felt sick, you’d call up your PCP and make an appointment. They’d refer you to a specialist if you needed one, and you’d trust their recommendation.
Today, everything is online. Patients can self-diagnose, research treatment options, and compare the qualifications of local doctors. They can even book and attend appointments without stepping out of their front doors, thanks to the boom in telemedicine.
To serve today’s highly informed patient population, providers need to acknowledge this dramatic shift. That means understanding how patients choose doctors, where they look for information, and what they already know when they knock on your (perhaps virtual) door.
Healthcare in the Internet Age
For most of the general public, the internet is a valuable tool for managing their health. It’s no longer a digital yellow pages where people look up a doctor’s phone number and then make a call. Instead, they’re doing a lot more on their own, all before—or sometimes instead of—speaking to a medical professional.
In a poll of more than 2,000 U.S. patients, 65% said that they’ve diagnosed themselves using information found online. What’s more, another study in Becker’s Hospital Review showed that 44% of patients prefer to self-diagnose instead of seeing a doctor.
Unfortunately, around 40% of respondents in the 2019 survey admitted that they’ve diagnosed themselves incorrectly. That means a lot of people are going into medical offices with potentially inaccurate—and often very scary—self-diagnoses. It also means that reliable information from trusted sources is incredibly valuable.
Finding Relevant Content
People also use the internet to search for information about existing conditions. According to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 80% of internet users, or about 93 million Americans, have searched for a particular health topic online. Among those:
- 63% searched for information about a condition or medical problem
- 47% looked up a treatment or procedure
- 34% look up prescription or over-the-counter medication
- 28% research alternative treatments
Health information is now the third most popular topic of research online, ranking just behind email and product research.
Searching for and Vetting Providers
In the internet age, online reviews play a major role in patients’ doctor selection process. In fact, the 2020 Master Patient Experience Survey found:
- 90% of patients report using online reviews to evaluate doctors.
- 71% used reviews as the first step to finding a new doctor.
- 43% would go out of their insurance network to see a physician with excellent reviews.
These statistics take on even greater weight when you consider that in 2013, only 25% of patients used online reviews to choose a doctor.
Attending Appointments Online
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been a drastic increase in the number of people who “visit” the doctor online. The technology isn’t new, but adoption of non-traditional health visits beyond telephone consultation has been relatively slow, according to the CDC.
Now, due to policy changes in response to stay-at-home orders and distancing guidelines, providers have overwhelmingly shifted to recommending “virtual” visits. Providers have realized how effective telemedicine can be at managing non-urgent issues, and how accessible it is for the average patient. Meanwhile, patients have gotten used to booking, attending, and reviewing visits online.
How People Consume Healthcare Content Today
Patients look for the information they need in many different ways. Depending on what kind of information they want—information about clinical trials versus a local doctor, for example—they’ll try different channels.
Local search is a common way for patients to find healthcare providers. Simply put, a patient Googles a phrase like “cardiologist near me” or “PCP in Cleveland, Ohio” and looks at what appears in the results.
If you search for doctors online, you’ll frequently see at the top of the results page what Google calls a “local pack”—a map and three listings of area providers.
Appearing within the local pack depends a lot on how close you are to the searcher, but it also has to do with the robustness of your internet presence—a tactic also known as local SEO.
Google Reviews is the most popular source for physician reviews, attracting 37% of patients who check reviews. Runners-up are HealthGrades at 26% and Rate MDs at 13%.
It’s important for providers to have profiles on these and other popular review sites, and to respond compassionately and appropriately to what patients say. This helps to improve engagement and show that your practice cares about patient experiences.
Trusted Content Sources
If you Google “looking up health information online,” you’ll see results with titles like “Online Health Information: Is It Reliable?” and “Online Health Information: What Can You Trust?” These results contain recommendations for how to find trusted content.
The top-ranking result comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It tells patients to search for content that’s written and/or reviewed by a health professional and to be aware of whether the page is sponsored. Providers have the advantage here because they have medical backgrounds that make them authoritative sources.
Effective Healthcare Content: 3 Types
Content helps to establish your practice’s authority and connects you with patients who need information on a particular topic. How you reach those audiences depends on the topic you’re addressing.
1. Web Pages
When you Google a common symptom like “high blood pressure,” most of the top results will be web pages from authoritative sites like the Mayo Clinic, Healthline, and the CDC. These pages are filled with general information that content experts call “evergreen”—in other words, content that’s unlikely to change significantly over time.
You don’t have to be the CDC or Mayo Clinic to drive traffic from informative web pages. All you need to do is create a patient education center as part of your website, and then fill it with helpful resource articles about symptoms, conditions, treatments, and so on.
2. Blog Posts
Evergreen content is important, but you also need to post timely content that reflects the most current knowledge of healthcare topics. Patients know how quickly medical information changes—more now than ever—and the NIH explicitly recommends that patients look for content with a recent publication date.
People look to blog posts to find this kind of current thinking. A great example is this WebMD post that summarizes what the medical community knows about masks and COVID-19 prevention.
It’s relevant and authoritative—not to mention, it reflects the latest understanding of an important topic that many users are searching for information about.
When you post this kind of blog content as a provider, you earn patients’ trust. Plus, according to SEO Tribunal, 97% of companies that blog get more traffic to their website.
3. White Papers
Blog posts are relatively concise. Digital marketing data from HubSpot shows that the ideal post length in 2020 is between 2,100 and 2,400 words, though plenty of higher-ranking posts are 1,500 words or less. If you want to position yourself and/or your practice as a thought leader in the healthcare space, you’re going to want to start putting out white papers.
A white paper is an in-depth exploration of a particular topic. It’s usually about 6 to 8 pages in length and includes more statistical analysis than your average blog post.
White papers don’t usually target patients as readers, but they remain an important addition to your content strategy. Why? They build your credibility within the medical community, helping you to get more referrals and encouraging other physicians to link back to your content. Because links from other sites strengthen your website’s off-page SEO, your site will perform better in Google’s search results in the long run.
Getting Started with Content
Content is one of the most important tools in building your online presence. It enhances the value that you offer to patients, strengthens your brand, and ultimately drives more traffic to your site, especially from people who don’t already know about you.
If it sounds like a time-consuming process, know that you don’t have to physically sit down and write blog posts and articles yourself. It's easy and cost-effective to outsource your content's creation to a freelancer or content writing service like Compose.ly. Then, all you have to do is review it for accuracy before you share it with the public.
Remember, patients are out there looking for information about you and the conditions you treat. The more their searches lead back to you, the better.
This article was written by Compose.ly writer Ellie Diamond.