A Stern Warning for Fertility Clinics Who Complain About Patient Review Sites

By Griffin Jones

"Change is not painful. resistance to change is painful."

Consider this a gentle "love tap" from a friend. 

A direct warning from me is far milder than what the market has in store. If I don't speak up about this single issue now, then I am neglectful in my duty to help protect the field of reproductive health from cultural and technological shock, because the internet-led market has proven to be unforgiving.

easy part.jpg

When I entered the fertility world, I accepted the responsibility of preparing those inside the field from the disruption coming from outside. I built a company to help bridge the gap between the status quo of reproductive health and what's happening in the rest of the tech revolution. So that we're not dealing with contemporary business buzzwords, allow me to give this definition to what entrepreneurs and venture capitalists call "disruption":

  • Major enterprises losing double-digit market share or going out of business within 36 months due to brand new players who come from outside of their field. 

ONline reputation is hardly the tip of the iceberg

This article does not come in reference to any one particular conversation I've had (perhaps even with you) in the last few months...because I've had several. Some have been with clients, some with vendors, some with strategic partners; it's a recurring theme.

When I first started creating content for fertility practices, the topic of "online reputation" is what really piqued the interest of fertility doctors. Many of us are concerned with what people say about us online. We often find the comments to be unfair, untrue, or at the very least, unkind. As we explore, however, you may agree that the root of the issue has less to do with the comments of others and more to do with a strategically flawed grasp for control.

Technological and cultural change are sweeping through nearly every facet of society. We are dissecting online reputation in this instance, simply because it happens to be a very common pain-point. In this deep-dive, we closely examine

  • The cause behind the information shift of the last twenty years
  • Why patients have embraced it
  • The four principal reasons that practices have NOT embraced it
  • Why patients rely on social proof to make decisions
  • The real threat to a fertility center's online reputation
  • What to do once we've stopped resisting 

Many doctors tell me that negative reviews upset them to the point where they can't sleep. You've done everything you could, and if you could wave a magic wand, you would wish for nothing less than for your upset patient to have a healthy baby and a happy family. Before we separate your perspective from the patient's right to have and share a completely different perspective, let's first examine the informational shift that has happened over the last two decades.

the human need to move away from information ASYMMETRY

For any patient to think that she or he is more qualified to review her or his case after a few hours (or even hundreds) of internet research, must be insulting. If you're a fertility doctor, you've gone through four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, four years of residency, and three years of REI fellowship. That's fifteen years of higher education, followed by some of the most demanding board exams in medicine. If you've grown accustomed to this legacy of information control, it's because you've worked extremely hard to do so. 

Information asymmetry, wherein the seller (provider) almost always has an information advantage over the buyer (patient) is wonderful...when you're the seller. Recall other pre-internet situations in which you have been the buyer. Call back to a time when you had to buy a car when only the car dealer knew the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) or its pre-owned history. Think of buying a house when only the realtor knew the last sale price, its home improvements, and recent sales in the neighborhood.  How did that feel? The best real estate agent in your market has a lot more experience buying and selling homes than you do. She may also be a very authentic and trustworthy professional. Does that mean she should expect you not to use Zillow and Trulia? You don't need me to explain the deep-seated human need to shift from information asymmetry to information parity. As consumers, we do it every day.

For over a century, virtually the only way for someone to obtain in-depth knowledge about any given medical condition was to attend medical school. Like our example of home-buying, patients had a scarcity of information, few provider choices, and no means to talk back. Contrast that with our very different world today.

The drive toward information parity

change coming for ivf centers

When I was a kid in the early 1990s, I wanted a million dollars so I could buy my own video game arcade. Now I have one on my phone (that I have never used). Every one of our patients walks around with a super computer in his or her pocket at all times. Within sixty seconds of being diagnosed with infertility, one can

  • Read various definitions of infertility
  • Study the most common causes
  • Research potential treatments
  • Compare providers
  • Watch video explanations from medical doctors from around the world
  • Find humor and relief from satirical and artistic content
  • Connect with thousands of other patients via social media

Information asymmetry is over. Forever.

patients often need to rely on each other 

Some of us are frustrated that just because our patients have access to virtually limitless information, that does not qualify them to make any diagnoses or prognoses. Correct; they are not medical doctors. They don't have to be. They are human beings with opinions and emotions and they have a right to share their experiences with each other. They frequently have to turn to one another for social proof to help them assess this information.

Also known as informational social influence, social proof is the psychological phenomenon where people rely on the actions and opinions of others to determine the appropriate behavior for a given situation. Talk about ambiguous social situations! What is the appropriate mode of behavior when someone learns that they've been diagnosed with infertility? When they've paid $18,000 of their life savings for two failed IVF cycles?

Social proof may be even more necessary for those dealing with infertility because of the tremendous social pressure to have children. When so few people in one's social network can relate to what they're going through, our patients frequently have to turn to the internet to find those who can empathize with their emotions and relate to their experience. 

information parity meets social proof meets technology

Imagine having to spend thousands of dollars of your own money on fertility treatment, and having no way of knowing which doctor or clinic could be the best fit for you. Along comes a fantastic user experience (UX), with sleek design and fields of search deeply relevant to those struggling with infertility. 

I don't own any equity in or have any commercial partnership with Fertility IQ at this time. Yet when I set myself free from my own desire to have perfect control over my paying clients' online ratings, and put myself in the position of the patient, it's easy to understand why they are using the platform in the hundreds of thousands. Instead of comparing apples to oranges on Google reviews, RateMDs, ZocDoc, Vitals, HealthGrades, or even Yelp, people with infertility read verified experiences from patients by their

  • Age
  • Diagnosis
  • Type of treatment(s)
  • Number of treatments
  • Success or failure of each treatment
  • Income level
  • Number of doctors seen

Complaining about Fertility IQ or any other review site is not as trivial as disliking a website. It's partaking in the exhausting struggle against what patients desperately seek. It is the hubris attempt to fight the human drive to move away from information asymmetry toward information parity. The market, whether through Facebook, Instagram, FIQ, Google, or any other platform will find a way to give it to them. It does not give a damn if we are inconvenienced.

the four main reasons for resisting patient reviews

Tech disruption in infertility field

I won't tell you to let go of control because we can't let go of something we don't have. If Muammar Gaddafi, the despot who antagonized western powers for decades, couldn't suppress social media, how could we? Why would we want to?

Well, after hundreds of conversations with fertility doctors, nurses, and practice managers, I've identified four principal reasons that we yearn to have control over what people say about us online, leading us down the path of most resistance.

  1. What we do is so hard and complicated. People don't have a right to criticize what they don't understand
    Consider the phenomenon of flight. What a magical experience. Distances that would have taken us weeks to travel a century ago, now take us a few hours. Instead of physical exertion, we're served snacks and alcohol while we enjoy unlimited entertainment on our personal supercomputers. The logistics, expertise, and technology required to provide this luxury to us are overwhelming.

    Left to my own devices, I would be lucky to mount a camel for a few miles. I still hate United Airlines, and so do you, and so do millions of our peers. Could we do a better job piloting, procuring maintenance for tens of thousands of aircraft, and maintaining schedules for tens of millions of travelers? Absolutely not. Should we have any right to complain when we're inconvenienced by what is still a tremendous luxury compared to the alternatives? Should is irrelevant; we do have the right, and we frequently exercise it. We are citizens of countries where free speech is (meant to be) protected by our constitutions. 

  2.  These reviews are fake
    Of the four reasons for resistance, this is the most legitimate, if the review is in fact illegitimate. False reviews are a real problem. Up to 15% of online reviews may be fake. If you are certain that a review is not from a patient at all, but from a competitor or an internet troll, flag it for review. I recommend flagging the review from more than one user account. At Fertility Bridge, we see fake reviews rear their ugly heads, and aren't always able to get them taken down. It's unfair and it pisses me off too. Because at least 85% of our reviews are authentic, let's focus on what we can control.

  3. Only unhappy people leave reviews
    A widely held assumption among fertility doctors is that IVF center reviews are overwhelmingly negative. This simply isn't true. In an analysis of 504 fertility clinic reviews, conducted by Fertility Bridge in 2015, 63% of reviews were positive and 37% were negative. Yes, there are reasons that people are motivated to leave negative and positive reviews about their practices. Someone may not have been able to become pregnant and want to take it out on you. Others may sing your praises because they were pregnant. Still, some centers are able to minimize their negative comments and maximize their positive ratings; that is our goal.

  4. Negative reviews use libel and slander
    If you'd like a good laugh with your morning coffee, read RateMDs' FAQs for doctors. In 12 paragraphs, they tell you how you can go pound sand if you think you're going to sue them. Vitals and HealthGrades do too, but RateMDs is the most humorous.
    Sometimes reviews violate the platform's terms of agreement by using hateful or vulgar language, and the site will remove them. Most of the time they do not.

the greatest threat to the accuracy of your reputation

Once we've moved beyond our four cardinal motives for resisting public feedback, we can focus on the real liability to the accuracy of our online reputations.

Last summer, in a summary of fertility doctors' responses to their online reviews, I corrected the old adage, "the customer is always right," to "the patients (plural, meaning the market) are always right". I'll use my own company as an example. Fertility Bridge served eight IVF clinics in 2016. If two of them were dissatisfied, one held a neutral opinion, and five were delighted with the service they received, I might be able to identify a few patterns. But what I would really want to do, is increase the volume of evaluation. Eight sources of feedback? Better than three, I guess. Thirty would be a heck of a lot better. 

The same is true for an IVF center's online reputation. When a fertility doctor has two scathingly negative reviews, one luke-warm review, and one glowing review, the public doesn't have enough information to accurately judge this physician. Very often, fertility doctors have unfavorable online profiles because they simply don't have a high enough volume of reviews on that particular platform. Forget these four motives for distrusting online review platforms; lack of volume is our worst enemy. The higher a clinic's volume, the more likely their reviews are to be positive. Period.

what to do now

Okay, Griffin. We've stopped resisting. We have a high volume of reviews but our ratings are still low. We still hate this. Make it go away.

disrupting the fertility field

If we've truly made it thus far, then we have the best road map for operational/personnel adjustments that we could ever ask for.  We have data to identify the most common problem areas in our practices and fix them. That's right, the same platforms that take control away from us give it right back...if we choose to act on it.

In my opinion, no review site makes it easier to evaluate customer service patterns than Fertility IQ. Clinics are rated by 

  • Operations
  • Scheduling
  • Billing department
  • Nursing Team

Physicians are rated by

  • Whether they treated their patient like a person or a number
  • Communication
  • How often they saw their patients at appointments
  • Response time

When we can measure how patients adore our nursing staff, and their disappointment in when their calls are returned, it's a lot easier to smoke out capacity-related issues that hinder the excellence of our practice experience. Of course we don't have to wait until patients leave our practice to listen to their stories. We can use tools like Press Ganey or Rep Check Up to solicit patient feedback, in-house. Public ratings are the final word, however, and in the eyes of the public, perception is reality.

a new review site is barely a baby serving of disruption

We've hardly seen the tip of the iceberg, my friends. If we cannot adapt to the reality of how patients use the internet to share their experiences, we are not long for what is to come. Regulation has sheltered healthcare from many of the market effects that have impacted other areas, but it won't hold forever. The executives of Zoc Doc, Vitals, and Health Grades are not worried about awkward run-ins at ASRM with physicians who subscribe to their premium offerings. They are interested in being the marketplace where patients find their providers.

FertilityIQ was started in the birthplace of many other innovative tech companies, the San Francisco Bay Area. It was started in the way most disruptive tech companies are, from outside. FertilityIQ doesn't receive funding from IVF clinics. They didn't need our permission to build their company and patients don't need our permission to share their experiences on their platform. This is what disruption looks like. Thousands of entrepreneurs are chomping at the bit to change healthcare in their own way. If we stay in the habit of yearning for control that we don't have, we will wistfully long for the days of unfavorable online profiles being our biggest pain in the neck.

Blockbuster Video chose to be nostalgic about the adventure of going to the video store. Netflix didn't. Marriott could have invented the world's most used lodging app; AirBnb was happy to do it instead. The largest taxi companies balked at the idea of hundreds of millions of passengers choosing to ride in a strangers' car; Uber bet the pot on it and became a multi-billion dollar company.

We are presented with an incredible moment in time to use new market opportunities to build the most successful versions of our practices. I started a company inside of our field, rather than outside, because it is far more agreeable to strategically adapt to technological and cultural change than to be rocked by the market. This is just advice, you certainly don't have to take it. Before you decide anything though, you might ask yourself if what you do now will make you right or wrong in the context of history.

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To learn more about how to improve your fertility practice's online reputation, and to adapt to new patient behavior, download your free copy of the Ultimate Guide to Fertility Marketing