Blog Post

How Your Patients are Stalking You Online—and Why That’s a Good Thing

The average American spends way more time scouring the Internet. Here are the trends for patient behavior online and what it means for private practice PTs.

Lauren Milligan
5 min read
March 2, 2015
image representing how your patients are stalking you online—and why that’s a good thing
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Did you know the average American spends way more time scouring the Internet for medical information than consulting with an actual medical professional? So says Makovsky, a Public Relations firm in NYC, and Kelton, a global research and consultancy firm, in their article titled, “Online Health Research Eclipsing Patient-Doctor Conversations.” These two companies conducted their third annual US survey in July 2013, polling 1,067 Americans ages 18 and older. The results revealed that the average American spends 52 hours a year searching for health information online—but only goes to the doctor three times over the same period. And that speaks to a very harsh truth: the face-to-face doctor-patient relationship has suffered a major breakdown.

Location, Location, Location

So, where were these folks looking for medical advice? You probably guessed WebMD (and you’d be right), but what about Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube? It might sound crazy, but social media is no longer reserved for scrolling through inane status updates and pictures of what your friends ate for dinner last night. Check out this ranking of the most-accessed online resources, according to the above-referenced survey:

  • WebMD: 53%
  • Wikipedia: 22%
  • Health Magazine Websites: 19%
  • Advocacy Group Websites: 16%
  • YouTube: 12%
  • Facebook: 10%
  • Blogs: 10%
  • Pharma Company Websites: 9%

Fast-forward two years, and online resource usage has changed a bit. Makovsky and Kelton’s fifth annual survey, released just last month, revealed that American consumers still have a crush on WebMD—in fact, they’re far more likely to visit WebMD (57%) than the CDC (17%) for health information—but their level of confidence in social media isn’t as cut and dried. According to this PR Newswire article on the results of the 2015 Makovsky Kelton survey, “79 percent of respondents reported they trust these channels either ‘a little bit’ or ‘not at all.’’’ But don’t discount social media altogether: “Patients with a diagnosed chronic medical condition [...] report ‘complete trust’ in these channels at nearly double the rate of the average population,” the article reports.

Perhaps that implicit trust is why the same PR Newswire article indicates that a staggering 88% of Americans “would be willing to share their personal information for the sake of improving care and treatment options,” although that sentiment is also partly due to the growing popularity of wearable technology. Gil Bashe, the executive vice president of Makovsky, notes that smartphones and wearables are causing consumers to alter their health and wellness behaviors: “Beyond a desire to speed access to information, consumers are using technology to engage proactively in managing their health—and a personality of 'search' is influenced by specific medical conditions,” Bashe said in the article.

Curious about what those consumers are typing into their search bars? According to Makovsky and Kelton, these were the most popular search categories among the 91% of American consumer respondents who said they would look for health information online:

General Research

  • Condition management: 58%
  • Symptoms: 57%
  • Prescriptions/prescribed treatments: 55%
  • Alternative/holistic medications: 40%
  • Equivalent prescription medications: 36%

However, the search distribution differed for consumers who had already received a medical diagnosis:

Post-Diagnosis Research

  • Symptoms: 41%
  • Treatment options: 26%
  • Specialized doctors and care facilities: 18%

Trust Fall

One of the most relevant lessons from the 2015 Makovsky and Kelton survey: participants indicated that “trust and quality of health information” were top factors in their “selection of online health sources.” That conclusion underscores the need for healthcare providers to maintain a strong online presence. As Bashe asserts in this Health IT Outcomes article, “Healthcare providers and patient advocates serve an increasingly key role in guiding consumers to credible information and community support that can benefit their care. Our job as communicators remains connecting patients in need with the information and resources that advance their well-being.”  

One way to build those connections: social media. In a 2014 whitepaper on the top healthcare trends of 2014, marketing firm KBM Group emphasizes the importance of “socialnomics” in health care: “Companies are creating consumer communities for connection, collaboration and communication. Patients are bonding with their network of providers, and wellness programs are deploying social apps for activity and calorie tracking with inspiration coming from healthcare-based rewards to gamification. And, patient-to-patient dialogue has never been greater through social health networks such as PatientsLikeMe, MedHelp, DailyStrength, and CureTogether.”

And don’t forget about the socialnomics value offered by ratings websites. In a 2014 MedCity News article, Mitch Rothschild—the CEO of Vitals, an online physician appointment and rating site—predicts that these kinds of rating websites will continue to become more influential for patients researching and selecting providers.

A Word of Caution

While social media is a valuable resource to you and your patients, it also can be a danger, as some patients may “check in” to your clinic on Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram, or other social media platforms. And while that action might seem harmless, it actually can cause patients to reveal way more than their location. According to a recent study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, folks looking to steal medical identities need very little data to target your patients. Researchers compiled a list anonymous credit card transactions from a sample of 1.1 million people and, using a new analytic formula, successfully identified “the unique individual purchasing patterns of 90 percent of the people involved, even when the data were scrubbed of any names, account numbers or other obvious identifiers.” In fact, they were able to pinpoint individual consumers using only four bits of secondary information (like location or timing). Talk about terrifying—not only for patients, but also for healthcare providers, as this type of social media activity forms a slippery slope to potential HIPAA violations. To help keep your patients—and your clinic—safe, let your patients know that the only place they should check in is at your front desk.

Now that you know the latest consumer trends and online patient behaviors that could affect your practice, you’re probably wondering how you can make that knowledge work for you without having to spend as much time researching your patients as your patients spent researching their medical conditions. Well, go ahead and unfurrow that brow, because we’ve got your back (and your front and sides). We’re here to help you reach and connect with patients, so keep checking our blog all month long for more insight on how to use all of this juicy information to your digital marketing advantage.


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