Healthcare providers might be in for a rude awakening in 2016.

This year is quickly shaping up to be the one in which digital media moves from having an ancillary impact on healthcare organizations, to one in which it plays just as central a role as it does in other industries.

Blatant warning signs started to crop up in late 2015, but thankfully, there are ways to prepare.

One provider’s (very public) mistake

Before the age of digital and social media, the repercussions around HIPAA violations were somewhat limited in terms of reputation.

Of course, public notification was required, but most concerns stopped after a few traditional media announcements. Today though, the reminders of slip ups and mishaps around patient privacy can resonate indefinitely.

Take the case of the New York City-based doctor whose office accidentally attached the records of 15,000 patients to an email.

The recipient of the email filed a complaint with the Department of Health, notifying them that they had received a spreadsheet that included addresses, appointment dates, and social security numbers of thousands of patients.

Once the leak was reported to the public, patients and even individuals who had never visited the office took to the online review site, Yelp, to document the breach, and even include links to news reports covering the issue.

Those one star-reviews and detailed comments are open for anyone to see.

This might sound somewhat trivial — after all, most people use review sites to find shopping centers and avoid poor restaurant experiences — but that’s quickly changing.

A shift in digital media

Changes in the healthcare industry, ranging from the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obamacare), to a general cultural shift toward more commercialization, are revolutionizing the way patients engage with the entire system.

While most of the biggest upsets come from internal sources, much of the outside world is adjusting to help patients better navigate an increasingly complex healthcare environment.

Yelp itself recently announced a free new feature (facilitated by a partnership with nonprofit news organization, ProPublica) in which users can look up provider-specific data from its review pages.

The initial data included 4,600 hospitals, 15,000 nursing homes, and 6,300 dialysis clinics across the country and is scheduled to be updated quarterly.

Visitors are now able to look up:

  • Fines paid by nursing homes;
  • Hospital ER average wait times;
  • Readmission frequency due to treatment-related infections or other issues.

This new informational pipeline also flows both ways. ProPublica will also have direct access to healthcare review information as research for news stories, greatly amplifying the reach of the consumer voice in organizational brand images.

Prior to this, the same information was available on Medicare’s Hospital Compare site, but the partnership with Yelp represents a dramatic shift toward the consumerization of patient engagement in healthcare, and it’s one that doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

Additionally, sites like Angie’s List have added review services for health insurance providers, reflecting the fact that patients are beginning to engage with healthcare much in the way they connect with other industries.

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently released a study in which 65% of respondents questioned were aware of online physician ratings.

Of those who did use ratings sites, 35% reported that they selected their physician based on positive reviews, while another 37% indicated they avoided physicians based on negative reviews.

Many providers around the country are proactively addressing the shift in the industry. For example, North Shore LIJ Medical Group, one of the nation’s largest multi-specialty group practices, began posting patient reviews of it physicians in 2015.

Medical organizations who are not making strategic plans to keep up with changes in the industry are risking their future well-being and ability to attract new patients and patient populations.

How to move forward

While examples like these might sound like cautionary tales (and to an extent, they are), smart healthcare organizations will look at these changes in patient engagement as opportunities to listen to patient concerns, as well as inform healthcare consumers of their strengths and specializations.

Doing this effectively will require a strategic and practical management of reputation and risk in a developing environment of healthcare digital media.

Webinar

On February 18th, Healthcare Technical Solutions, in collaboration with Econsultancy, will host an educational webinar titled, Reputation & Risk: Corporate Reputation & Social Media in Healthcare.

It takes place from midday-3pm EST. Go here for more information, or register here.