Third-party sources of truth are a way of life for today’s savvy consumer. Like it or not, people have more agency in how they make decisions, turning to the web to search for or validate information before choosing one path or another. This plays out in seemingly simple ways — for example, finding a street address or a telephone number. It also affects where someone will even do business: The internet hive mind around reviews has collectively built more public confidence than the billion-dollar budgets brands spend annually trying to claim and secure their audiences.
And it’s not just consumer industries. Over the years, healthcare organizations have discovered that they might not be as in control of their data and their story as they once imagined.
Initially, health systems were in denial. They tried competing with — or even ignoring! — the third-party sites where the bulk of patients research physicians. But thanks to venture backing, search engine optimization, and a strong national presence, momentum around these sites was already growing. Information hubs like Healthgrades and Vitals quickly became the gold standard as well as integral to the patient journey to care.
Resistance, as they say, was futile. Nearly 60% of patients have selected a new provider due to the availability of accurate, easily found information online — and half won’t book an appointment if that information is incorrect or incomplete. So, how does a healthcare organization effectively manage this data for multiple physicians and facilities across an ever-growing list of third-party resources? Though this question has plagued the industry for years, the answer today is not as complicated as most healthcare professionals have come to believe.
Listings management: A look back
In the early days, most health systems sought in-house solutions. That seemed like the most logical approach at first glance, but it quickly became unsustainable — and even impossible. Automated verification phone calls, direct mail postcards, and an endless variation of data requirements bred infinite frustrations and finally drove organizations to seek outside help.
Well-funded tech companies then tried to solve the problem like many early-stage industries do: low-cost labor. Vendors could hire overseas contractors who would do the work manually: logging in as your organization and making updates on your behalf.
But this way of doing things caused its own problems, too. Employee-retention issues, human error, and too many disparate sources of information led to data integrity issues. And further complicating things, many consumer sites actively block overseas vendors from acting on your behalf while, simultaneously, updating their systems with data from external sources, overwriting the accurate work that was already done. Ultimately, this proved ineffective — and even counterproductive in the long run.
What about Google?
Some listings management providers overemphasize the importance of Google, failing to recognize that it’s just one piece of a much larger puzzle — especially for the healthcare industry. Yes, Google is an incredibly dominant gateway. But it’s not where the bulk of research is done.
According to proprietary research by Doctor.com, patients check, on average, at least two or three sites before booking an appointment. And third-party directories comprise ⅔ of the appointments booked online. When patients search for providers, leading healthcare destinations like Healthgrades and Vitals pop up at the top of Google search. Then, patients dive deeper into these sites for more robust and detailed information that will sway their decisions one way or another.
Perhaps a more concrete example is e-commerce, which largely mirrors today’s healthcare experience. A retail transaction doesn’t take place on Google. Consumers search for shoes or jackets or toasters on Google, then end up on Amazon, Target, Macy’s, etc. The same is true for healthcare. A patient will search for a specific doctor’s name or Google the type of doctor they’re looking for who’s in their area, then click into the third-party sites that show up to learn more. Proactive management of the core healthcare destination sites, not only the gateway, is key to building an effective listings management program.
Listings management today
In more recent history, several kinds of companies have thrown their hats into the ring to manage data across the healthcare spectrum. However, where some strategies have excelled, many others have fallen short.
The shotgun approach: Organizations emerged en masse to manage as many third-party sites as they could, in any way possible. They cast a wide net and tried to accommodate every industry without finding their niche. As a result, these solutions were very simple, and they didn’t focus on vertical-specific sites like Healthgrades, for example, which only covers healthcare. And even more unknown were websites such as Zwivel — unless you’re in cosmetic or plastic surgery.
Companies that started out playing the field in this manner built generic networks and spun their unique value as providing more “coverage” than their competitors. Then, they scrambled to saturate the most sites they could find, whether they were relevant to a business or not, with the promise that this strategy improved SEO. While some underlying validity to their claim may have existed many years ago, today, this story no longer holds up.
Other early-stage tactics have proven themselves infeasible in the long run. For example, many companies didn’t actually update the data source for these sites. Instead, they threw a “veneer” over the listings that made everything look polished and up to date. But this was far from the case if a contract were ever canceled: Profiles would revert to the original bad data — putting the healthcare organization back at square one.
The power broker: Around this time, another approach came to the forefront. This kind of company passed hospital and provider data to aggregators like Neustar and Acxiom, which would then make it available to any site that wanted to take it. But this approach has considerable shortcomings, too — most notably, many third-party companies either don’t use this data at all or devalue it in their data chain.
The solution provider: Today’s web strategy requires a different approach — one that prioritizes partnerships and the ecosystem on a more holistic level. And from this need has sprung the most modern method of managing listings yet.
How patients search has shifted dramatically. And, as it continues to evolve, you will need a listings management solution that can take disparate data flows, standardize it, and transpose it to the right places. As market consolidation accelerates and industry-specific category sites emerge across the consumer web, the ability to partner with these companies and integrate via APIs to update the core sources remains crucial.
Listings, the coronavirus, and telehealth
Looking at listings today, through the lens of a global pandemic that has upended our way of life as well as the healthcare industry, the importance of a robust listings management solution cannot be overstated. Things seem to still be changing at breakneck speed, including guidelines for reopening across locales. To adhere to state- or citywide restrictions, clinics and hospitals nationwide have had to postpone nonessential or routine care, adjust office hours, and offer telemedicine. They’ve also had to make their COVID-response plan known to patients who are unsure what’s prohibited or who can be seen by a physician in person.
Quick-thinking and nimble health systems used their listings to broadcast these changes on the sites they know patients are already looking for healthcare information. At the same time, companies like Google and Healthgrades jumped to make spreading your message even easier — for example, sharing direct links to make a virtual appointment, adding secondary hours, and updating patients on an organization’s COVID-19 response or new protocols.
In times of chaos, communication can be critical for public health. At the same time, being clear and composed in your messaging can be a source of comfort to patients who are uncertain about how to proceed with healthcare that can no longer be postponed — establishing trust and even earning their loyalty. These measures will not only serve healthcare organizations well today, but as we move forward into a “new normal,” they will also help set you up for success and longer-term growth.
It’s safe to say that listings management is a messy business — especially in healthcare, where the data is complex and often interwoven but not perfectly aligned with the vast consumer web. It’s important to partner with a company that both understands this ecosystem and has already established relationships with sites that directly affect the healthcare industry, like Healthgrades, Vitals, and WebMD, as well as industry-agnostic search engines and data hubs — including Google.
Listings management was once difficult to measure and quantify. But modern solution providers are able to claim and secure profiles, push data to the right channels through the appropriate and credible methods, and troubleshoot quickly if an issue pops up. Perhaps more importantly, they can show patient traffic and conversions, demonstrating much more tangible value to your healthcare organization now and in the future.