Retailers have been using product reviews on their e-commerce sites for the last ten years. Healthcare is now getting into the reviews game in earnest. More hospitals are putting into place their own ratings and review systems as they start to appreciate the key role reviews play in consumers’ decision making.

Here’s a few statistics to drive home the point:

  • 84% of patients now use online reviews to evaluate physicians.
  • More than three-quarters (77%) of patients use online reviews as their first step in finding a new doctor, says a consumer survey from software ratings and research firm Software Advice.

When Amazon first started adding product reviews in 1995, the idea was so cutting edge it teetered on the sharp knife-edge of crazy. Over time—and with the popularity and ease of shopping on Amazon—consumers found product reviews to be trustworthy and credible sources of information. By 2006, reviews had gained steam across e-commerce.

Retailers were starting to come around to reviews and the idea that consumers were more interested in what other consumers had to say than what they had to say. Today nearly three-fourths (71%) of the web’s largest retailers have product reviews as a standard feature, per the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, which ranks leading business-to-consumer e-commerce sites on annual web sales and related metrics.

Why online reviews work for decision making.

Sure, retailers’ product descriptions are written explicitly to sell, and inherent in that sell is the romanticism of product benefits and the downplay of any product deficiencies. Consumers are always naturally skeptical of retailers’ descriptive selling pitches, as they should be.

As the saying goes Caveat emptur, pal—let the buyer beware.

But to conclude that success of reviews depends on nothing more a healthy consumer skepticism would miss an important point. Beyond instilling trust, reviews help consumers in two other important ways. Reviews help consumers:

  • Facilitate the search process to get to the right product or items.
  • Feel more confident that their choice will be the right one.

These two areas where reviews help consumers shop online hold true for retail and for healthcare. It is an easy argument to make that healthcare decisions are more critical and have longer term impacts than say, getting yourself that sweater-hoodie you’ve had your eye on for Christmas. Unless—that shade of beige you are eyeing will make you look pale, my dear, and we simply cannot have that.

Why reviews for healthcare?

In choosing a healthcare system, a doctor or a hospital, a consumer is literally putting their life in someone else’s hands. A serious decision deserves serious consideration. And healthcare organizations that are embracing ratings and reviews are getting results—and mostly positive results.

Here are some examples:

  • Average visits to physician profiles have increased 2,000% since Piedmont Healthcare, an Atlanta-based network of six hospitals, launched its ratings and comments program in early 2014, says Matt Gove, chief consumer officer.
  • More than 1,000 patient comments currently on MarshfieldClinic.org at the Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin are based on surveys from April, May and June, and will be updated monthly. So far about 550 providers have star ratings and more than 94% have received a rating of 4.5 or higher, Marshfield says.

Clearly, patients are using online reviews about healthcare to influence decision making.  Another key metric that would encourage healthcare to consider online reviews is the fact that nearly half of respondents (47%) would go to an out-of-network doctor if their reviews were better than those of an in-network doctor, says the Software Advice survey.

Translation: For all of the the math geeks out there, (congratulations on taking to heart these observations of mine so far) here’s a translation:

Positive online reviews = consumer price insensitivity + provider pricing power

What lessons can healthcare learn from retail to move up the reviews learning curve faster?

Here are my five key review ruminations from the retail records:

  1. Don’t be afraid. Bad reviews will happen. If you can drive the volume of reviews these will be quickly sandwiched between good reviews. Develop an automatic process to solicit reviews to keep a strong pipeline of reviews coming.
  2. Respond. If you can respond to a bad review, do so. It shows responsiveness, empathy, caring and ownership. You don’t have to publicly apologize, but you can express understanding and openness to researching a solution to the problem. Patients do expect you to take their comments seriously. If a patient posts a negative review others pay close attention to how the doctor responds. 60% of consumers believe it is “very” or “moderately important” for doctors to post a response, says the Software Advice survey.
  3. Be prepared. Develop well thought out standard responses that can be personalized to respond to bad reviews so you have them at the ready. Tailor over time and develop additional “boiler plate” responses so you have a library of template answers that can be personalized to the commenter and situation.
  4. Monitor. Don’t allow reviews to post directly without human review and monitoring. There will be people commenting with swearing, lewd and unsavory descriptions of body parts, and even pure gibberish.  If these comments make it onto the site, the credibility of all the reviews will suffer.
  5. Mine the data. Mine reviews for consumer insights. What is important to them?  What words are used? What do we do better than others? Where can we improve?

In conclusion, there are significant opportunities for healthcare to leverage online reviews like the retail industry has over the last ten years. There are significant gains to facilitate the decision-making process for the consumer, and significant gains for the healthcare provider that allow greater differentiation and—holy grail—pricing power. The transparency and power of reviews aren’t just a ‘new’ thing brought on by online, it is ‘now and forever thing.’

Amy Madonia is a New York e-commerce consultant, marketer, blogger and a frequent speaker at digital marketing events. She has served as the e-commerce executive in charge of marketing and business operations at multiple consumer brands including Wrangler, New York & Co., Nautica and Hanes.