Patients are taking their health into their own hands as far as they can by increasingly looking online.
Catherine Harriss explains there is now an obligation for private doctors to provide the information they need…if they really want to increase their practice.
Patients are looking for you online. And negative perceived changes in our NHS mean more people are doing it.
Patients are no longer waiting; instead they are seeking out their own information – either learning more about their condition or seeking answers to their health issues.
In early 2020, it was calculated that 7% of Google’s daily searches were health-related. That’s around one billion every day.
Whatever information is available to them, they will use. Unfortunately for them, this can be incorrect as well as correct.
Why are people searching online?
Eighty-four per cent of people want to solve their own problems using search engines.
As 92% of the global search market is dominated by Google, then this means that, for the purposes of this article, I am only going to talk about Google.
In 2021, the terms relating to Coronavirus took three of the top five Google searches.
Yes, we were still in the midst of a pandemic, but people were taking it upon themselves to find the answers to their questions online. We know that GP surgeries were overwhelmed and so another source of information was sought.
In the same year, 56% of web searches took place on smartphones.
This indicates to me that people are using their phones more and more to find immediate answers and solutions to their problems. People spend nearly four hours of their day on their smartphones.
We also know that, in 2019, seven out of ten internet users in the US would look up customer reviews on their phones while in a shop when approaching an employee.
How people get health information. From: Google’s Impact in the UK 2020
Who is searching online?
In brief, most people are searching online and the trend is only going to increase. By the year 2025, it is predicted that 95% of people will have a smartphone.
In 2021, 88% of adults owned one, with 96% in the 16- to 24-year-old age group, but 78% aged 55 and above.
How are people searching online?
In the main, people are using what are known as ‘long-tailed’ keywords to find the answers to their specific problems. 92% of searches are for search terms that have four or more words, thus the name ‘long tail’.
For example, you may be a chest physician and one of your main symptoms for disease is the presence of a cough.
While you might think that the term ‘persistent cough’ would be an obvious search term, a user might search for ‘cough that won’t go away’. In fact, 3.5k people in the UK search this term every month.
Another 1.1k of searches then search for ‘I have a cough that won’t go away but I am not sick’.
So, as a chest physician, you want to help someone with a persistent cough because it could be a symptom of many ailments. By responding to a potential patient’s needs directly, you are more likely to engage a possible patient and also educate them correctly.
From experience, ranking high up on Google for the search term ‘persistent cough’ is going to be far more difficult than ‘I have a cough that won’t go away but I am not sick’.
If you can answer this, then there is a greater chance that your target audience will read your article and then move further around your website and hopefully make contact.
Focusing down, when a user does land on a website, 30% of users will do a more detailed search using the search bar. So, if your content is lacking, users will move to another site.
When a user finds the information they need via a search function on a website, then they are more likely to book or buy. In essence, the user experience needs to be easy and straightforward.
This behaviour means that if the information you provide is not available or is written in a way that is not easily understood, then you have lost a possible patient.
Where are they searching online?
Google, Youtube and Facebook, predominantly.
In the UK, 71% of British people consider Google to be more relevant than other search engines. Youtube’s use has grown by 40% since 2014 with more than 500 hours of video being uploaded every minute.
Facebook has 3bn active monthly active users. In the UK, around 66% of the total UK population are Facebook users.
In context, Google receives 40,000 search queries per second. In the UK, 3.2m people every day use YouTube to learn about fitness or health and 46% of all searches looking for local information.
After talking to friends and relatives and seeking their opinions, the next step is to conduct an online search, look at the reviews and think about the location.
I have heard this thought process happen day after day through the thousands of conversations I have had with patients and it remains irrefutable.
This is the logical progression and very rarely, it seems, is the GP mentioned. Patients are taking their own health into their own hands as far as they can and so there is an obligation to provide information that they need . . . if you want to increase your practice.
Doctors’ YouTube channels
Recently, in October 2022, YouTube launched health product features in the US. This means that for licensed healthcare professionals in the US, there will be the opportunity to make their YouTube channels eligible for talking about health-related issues and, subsequently, providing credible and trusted information.
There is no doubt that it is only a matter of time before this becomes an option for UK health professionals too.
With so many users of Facebook in the UK, it is not surprising that many seek out medical information there. For many, Facebook is a virtual support group where patients learn from patient leaders.
Using the search bar, Facebook becomes a search engine of its own, but researchers at Health Feedback found that seven out of ten articles that were shared contained misleading or false information.
In fact, it removed more than 20m posts that related to misinformation about Covid. Through the support groups I have helped to manage on Facebook, it is clear that one of the major roles of such groups is to clarify the truth and to support individuals to get the healthcare they need from the right people.
Time to be a creator
It really is time to be a creator of content and let others be consumers. Having spent years connecting patients to the right medical help, to help a patient directly so that they feel you are communicating directly with them is never more so important.
Create content via articles that seek to answer your ideal patient’s queries. By implementing this approach and then sharing on your clinic’s social media, you will quickly build up your authenticity, trust and approachability.
All these are major qualities of a clinic that engages patient’s online. More importantly, you will be contributing correct information to the internet, helping many others in the process.
Catherine Harriss (right) is founder of MultiWorks Marketing