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Healthy Local Search

stephens-dean
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The buzz in social media has been local for quite some time. From the hottest local deal, to finding a review of a local restaurant or contractor, and even checking into a favorite place, local is embodied in social media.

Although health-focused organizations have been slow to get to the gate when it comes to local search and social media, it's starting to take off.

We're often bogged down by industry regulations, and a little gun shy when exposing our information online, much due to the potential of customer reviews. However, the industry has realized that the marketing potential of the Internet, especially in the local setting, can have great benefits, even if a consumer posts a negative comment.

Finding Local Health Providers and Services

In health care, consumers are widely using tools on the Web to address their health care needs. To find a doctor or medical/dental professional, instead of solely relying on word of mouth recommendations, consumers are using an array of tools and sites in which consumers can find a doctor.

Three popular search tools for customers are:

On Healthline, 20 percent of visitors use DocSearch, and 60 percent of those visitors enter a specific name of a medical professional to start their search, followed by specialties (e.g., dermatologists in San Francisco). The most common specialties we see searched are primary care (family practice, internal medicine), OB/GYN, and psychologists.

Ironically, the types of doctors more likely to use the Internet with patients are medical specialties (e.g., dermatologists) than primary care.

Clearly, local search for the location of health care providers is becoming more popular as consumers take action in their overall health. However, consumers are continuing to demand more extensive information and transparency and often come up short finding good information on quality (i.e., who's the best provider for me).

A survey conducted by Insider Pages and Harris Interactive found that two-thirds of adults wished they could find more comprehensive information about doctors online.

Directories and Reviews â”” Taking the Good, Mediocre and Ugly

With search listings in local directories and both general and vertical search engines often come reviews. Sites like Yelp and Angie's List enable consumers to read online reviews about the doctors, hospitals, and alternative health practitioners, and add in their own experiences.

Reviews are often the point that holds back health practitioners from listing themselves in the directories because of the risk of having a negative post. However, online consumers are very kind to physicians.

The May 13, 2010 edition of The Journal of General Internal Medicine reported that 88 percent of consumer reviews were positive. How fear of retribution plays into this "unknown" since there have been a couple of high profile defamation lawsuits by physicians against consumers who wrote disparaging reviews based on personal experience.

There are also sites that combine search and reviews, such as HealthGrades and Vitals. HealthGrades bypasses consumer reviews, and provides independent ratings of physicians, hospitals and even insurance providers.

Google, too, has entered this space by stipulating lists of doctor offices by location on a Google Map. Going one step further, Google has integrated consumer reviews from CitySearch and Yahoo Local alongside the practice office link and basic information about the provider.

Interestingly, you get different results at Google depending on which doctor synonym you use. "Diabetes doctor" delivers a different search result list than does "endocrinologist," but in reality it's the same type of doctor.

Medical professionals also go online to search local. They search on their names to see what's being written about their practice. This behavior will accelerate when better practice quality data goes online.

The sources for such quality will come from:

  • Medical professionals as they publish their research and practice data to the search engine personal profile pages. Most online doctor directory data is less than 80 percent accurate and requires frequent updating.

  • Government, primarily the federal government agencies who are charged by law with putting a huge amount of once closely held information online.

  • Data aggregators, including health plans, who can tell us who in the local area is performing the most knee repairs, which cardiologists are following the approved clinical patterns, which hospital demonstrates the lowest re-hospitalizations for heart patients, and so on.

Checking in -- at the Doctor's Office?

Social location services like Foursquare and Facebook Places provide ways for consumers to tell their friends where they are at any given time.

This social media service really hasn't caught on with the health care industry, however. After all, do you really want to broadcast that you're sitting in the doctor's waiting room because you're sick or at the hospital waiting to be released? As a consumer, I wouldn't, and as a provider, would it really matter who the Mayor of your office is?

However, location services can be beneficial for alternative health care providers like acupuncturists, massage therapists, or nutritionists, and even facilities for consumer wellness like a fitness center or gym. Fun check-ins can provide a way for consumers to check out services of these local practitioners, and at the same time learn more about their overall wellness.

As we continue to explore how local search and location-based social media impacts the lives of consumers and health care, we will most certainly see new ways these tools are used by doctors, hospitals and insurance providers alike. Don't be surprised to hear that one of your friends has just become the Mayor of the hospital cafeteria or local health club.

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