How Most Patients Find a Doctor — And How That’s Changing

By PokitDok Team,

The inspiration for this post came from a pretty straightforward question: How does the average American find a doctor? That question has more layers than you might think. If you move to a new city for work, how do you choose a primary physician? If you need to have a specific procedure done, how do you find a surgeon you can trust? How do you assess the care provision of the local doctors available to you?

When we began to dig through the research, two things jumped out immediately:

  • There are far more articles by doctors teaching patients how to find a physician than there is available research on how real-life patients behave.
  • There is a noticeable generation gap in the way patients shop for doctors.

Here is a snapshot of how patients are shopping for healthcare professionals in 2016, and how we can expect that to continue to change in the months and years to come.

Most Patients Search for Health Information Online

The Internet is now 20 years old, and we're all used to having instant access to to information, no matter the topic. This applies universally across all generations, and across most aspects of our lives. According to research from Catalyst Healthcare, the majority of Baby Boomers

  • Shop for clothes and shoes online (65%)
  • Pay bills online (78%)
  • Research drugs or medical conditions online (84%)

In other words, transparent healthcare information isn't a niche demand among Millennial and Gen X consumers. Consumers of all ages are already shopping for healthcare the way they shop for most other things they buy. According to a U.S. News survey from 2014, more than a quarter of Americans report they use web searches as their primary method of finding a doctor.

Interestingly, more than a third of people reported they rely on recommendations from friends. We'll explore in a moment how this ties into the fact that most healthcare consumers don't feel they have enough data to make an informed choice about their doctors.

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The Millennial Influence on Shopping for Healthcare

"Millennials grew up in the digital era — using online tools to inform their decision making is second nature," writes the team at Nuance Communications, which has put together one of the most thorough studies available on how young people shop for healthcare. "And, because they're mobile, it's even easier for them to get access to and share information online."

More than half of this generation (ages 18 to 34) will Google health information before seeing a doctor, according to the report. And when they do see doctors, the relationship tends to be in many ways more transactive than with other generations.

Shannon Barnet at Becker's Hospital Review touched on this as well According to her research: More than half of Millennials report having no personal relationship with their primary care physicians. Further, they are more than twice as likely to prefer retail clinics than Boomers or seniors would be.

That said, Millennials share one important commonality with other generations: they value attentive doctors who listen well. Just consider what one respondent told Nuance in its study: "When I needed to find a new physician, I looked for a doctor within my insurance network and then turned to online reviews. Based on the comments, I ruled out several doctors, including one I was originally considering because someone mentioned they felt rushed and treated like a paycheck during their appointment."

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Yelping Healthcare: The Popularity of Patient Reviews

Here is where online research and personal recommendations converge. While user-submitted reviews might seem like a better fit for Italian bistros, they are increasingly influencing which doctors patients choose.

The healthcare industry has already begun to respond, too. A handful of sites already exist that let patients browse expert grades and patient reviews of primary care physicians, surgeons and other specialists. These include:

And for Medicaid patients, AAP.org has a helpful list of state-level provider directories.

Not everyone is on board with patients' use of review sites, however. "I have yet to find a [physician reviews] website that even comes close to being useful, reliable, or accurate," writes Bruce Y. Lee, the Director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC) at Johns Hopkins. In a piece for Forbes, Lee recommends that patients speak with health professionals to get personal recommendations, review the credentials of physicians, and have "an insurance or medical plan that allows you maximal choice, flexibility, and time to get to know your physician."

This is long been a tedious information-gathering process. What's needed now is a clean user experience that delivers this information to people whenever they need it. The demand is clearly there.

"Americans do not think that information about the quality of healthcare providers is easy to come by, and they lack trust in information sources that tend to produce such indicators," a 2014 report from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research says. "When it comes to what being a quality health care provider means, there is a disconnect between how experts and consumers define it. Most Americans focus on the doctor-patient relationship and interactions in the doctor's office, with fewer thinking about the effectiveness of treatments or their own health outcomes."

This is crucial for healthcare providers to understand. Americans are concerned about the cost of a procedure and its effectiveness, sure, but what gets patients through the door is a perception that the doctor listens to his or her patients rather than treating them "like a paycheck."

"We are a different society than we were 20, 30, or 50 years ago, and people want and frankly need to become more involved in their own care," writes Nuance's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anthony Oliva.

"Quite literally, they have the most skin in the game. Being able to research and choose physicians based on important criteria such as the amount of quality discussion time, eye contact and other bedside manners, as well as health outcomes is the right of every patient. After all, trust and comfort is at the core of healing and good care."

The key lesson here is basic patients want to be treated like people, and they'll use their collective voices to elevate healthcare providers to do a better job of adhering to this principle.

images by:
Unsplash, jarmoluk, Skitterphoto

The opinions expressed in this blog are of the authors and not of PokitDok's. The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice.

  Tags: Healthcare consumerism, Providers