Five Key Principles to Designing the Best Doctor Finder

Christine  Meginness

August 14, 2015

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Recently, we've been engaged with multiple projects for large healthcare systems. One aspect of these digital experience designs, and a challenge that has proven to be a tough nut to crack for health systems across the board, has been improving online physician finders.

A physician finder (or doctor finder, provider search tool, whatever you prefer to call it) is one of the most visited areas of health systems' websites. In fact, it has a direct hand in driving patient volumes-from new patient acquisition to physician referrals-yet many marketers have been reticent to redesign. Why?

For such a "simple" tool, it's a lot more complicated than it seems. There can be system-wide debates-from which doctors should be included, to how they are displayed, to how much information should be displayed and how it is searched for, that can gridlock projects for years.

While there is no panacea, and these challenges can be daunting, they can be overcome. Here are five key principles to designing the best doctor finder possible:

1. Don't Force Geography: There is a distinction between a user's needs for finding specialists vs. primary care doctors. For example, when someone is looking for a primary care doctor, they generally care whether the doctor is close and convenient to their home or work. When seeking a specialist, they are often not bound as tightly by geography and are willing to travel, sometimes even out of state, for the specialty/complex care they need. Not forcing the user to choose a geography/location in order to start their search, but allowing them to refine based on distance/location, has been one way to overcome this.

2. Use Natural Language: Mapping medical terminology to more natural language for users is critical. If someone has just been diagnosed with diabetes and is looking for a doctor to help them manage the disease, they might not know they need an "endocrinologist" so having an experience that only allows users to search/filter by medical specialty is too limiting. A robust taxonomy that recognizes natural language searches like "diabetes doctor" and sends users to the appropriate care providers is the answer, as well as a search engine that recognizes common misspellings (not everyone knows how to spell diabetes).

3. Embrace Feedback and Transparency: Patient ratings/Health Grades can be incredibly valuable and informative to users who are trying to decide which provider to work with. However, it can be a political issue within a healthcare organization; many providers fear negative reviews becoming public, and some providers are also competitive with others and fear that subjective patient grades may unfairly influence prospective patients. However, we believe the market is changing and consumers are taking charge of their healthcare choices to a much greater extent than in years past. A healthcare consumer wants to make informed decisions, and they're beginning to demand this information. We encourage our healthcare clients to get ahead of the curve and provide this data to prospective patients.

4. Robust Doctor Profiles Are Key: At a very basic level, provider profiles that are more complete (full bio, awards and publications, educational background, and especially a photo) get more clicks, and subsequently more visibility during a consumer's selection process. Many physicians don't see the value, but we've been able to demonstrate via testing that there is value in the providers contributing to an up-to-date, robust doctor profile on the healthcare system's website. While we are still in the process of gathering data to directly establish a measurable relationship between robust profiles and appointments made, we believe the cause and effect is there. We are working with our clients to prove the case and further encourage a higher level of profile completion. Stay tuned.

5. Show Your Full Team: A conundrum our clients have encountered is the visibility/validity of having providers such as anesthesiologists, hospitalists, pathologists, trauma and emergency medicine doctors visible in a doctor finder. Consumers don't ever get to choose those providers, so should they show up in the finder? Our argument has been yes. As we move towards a more accountable care model, healthcare systems should demonstrate that they have a network of care to support all of their patients' needs. Establishing relationships in your physician finder's data model as far as which surgeons work with which anesthesiologists, or whom you might expect to encounter at a given clinic or hospital, demonstrates a well-rounded "care team" approach that is the future of healthcare.