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Study finds 96 percent of online complaints about doctors fault customer service, not quality of care

An analysis of nearly 35,000 online reviews of doctors nationwide finds that customer service—not physicians’ medical expertise and clinical skill—is the overwhelming reason patients complain about their health care experiences on the Internet.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Practice Management (JMPM), finds that only 1 in 25 patients rating their health care providers with two stars or fewer is unhappy with his or her physical examination, diagnosis, treatment, surgery or health outcome.

The other 96 percent of patient complaints cite poor communications, disorganization, and excessive delays in seeing a physician as the cause for dissatisfaction.

“The nearly unanimous consensus is that in terms of impact on patient satisfaction, the waiting room trumps the exam room,” says Ron Harman King, co-author of the JMPM article and CEO of Vanguard Communications, a marketing and public relations firm for specialty medical practices.

“Our study uncovered a torrent of patient allegations of doctors running behind schedule, excessive waiting time to see a provider, billing problems, indifferent staff, and doctors’ bedside manners,” King says. “Yet hardly anyone had a beef with the quality of health care received.”

The absence of dissatisfaction with doctor skills per se means practices should be able to improve online reviews comparatively easily, according to King.

“Generally, it’s far simpler to fix problems at the front desk or physician scheduling than to deal with allegations of inadequate medical skills. Of course, this requires a commitment from doctors to stick to schedules, allowing for only occasional urgencies that interrupt a physician’s day,” says King.

Researchers for the study developed customized software to analyze online reviews of doctors, medical practices, clinics, and hospitals coast to coast. The software identified and classified millions of words patients used in describing their experiences.

Additionally, the software identified the most common phrases associated with each star-level rating, as reviewers are generally able to rate their experiences on a scale of one to five stars.

While online patient reviews cause handwringing among health care professionals, doctors generally fare well in this medium: 3 of 5 reviewers in the study (61 percent) gave their doctors five stars and accounted for 69 percent of verbiage in all reviews. Only about 1 in 3 (32 percent) gave ratings of one or two stars.

Forty percent of the five-star reviews complimented doctors on their bedside manners, while 28 percent complimented the staff in clinics and hospitals.

Among the unhappiest patients, 53 percent cite communications frustrations, using descriptions such as “to get an appointment…” and “I was told that…”

Jonathan Stanley, Vanguard technology director; and Neil Baum, M.D., a New Orleans urologist and author of nine books on medical practice management and marketing, are co-authors of the study with King.

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