Social Media for fertility clinics

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.

-------------

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

The 7 Steps of the Fertility Bridge Proven Process for Tracking IVF Marketing Results

How we measure and improve our KPIs (key performance indicators) in the fertility field.

How we measure and improve our KPIs (key performance indicators) in the fertility field.

how do we measure the return on investment (ROI) of an ivf marketing program?

Jackie Sharpe is Regional Marketing Director for HRC Fertility in Southern California. Once, at an Association for Reproductive Managers (ARM) marketing meeting, I asked Jackie, "Is it easier, or harder, to track the effectiveness of marketing today than it was several years ago?"

I could tell she had thought about it before. "It's harder," she replied.

Harder? We have every tool under the sun, from Google Analytics to every kind of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software and marketing dashboard. We can track every click, page view, Instagram like, Yelp review...everything down to how many minutes the average visitor spends on our website. How is it not easier than ever to track our ROI? Yet, you know what? She's absolutely right.

It's harder to singularly track patient sourcing, not only in spite of these infinite tools, but partly because of them. The  avenues from which today's patient becomes aware of our services are virtually limitless. So too, are the factors that can influence her decision. We need a system, as opposed to a single figure.

indispensable indicators need to be analyzed together

In my last blog post, I wrote about the Six Indispensable Indicators that IVF Marketing is Doomed Without. There are six, because individually, none of them offer us a wholly accurate synopsis of our marketing results. Whether we use the hottest CRM, or an Excel workbook, tools do not replace our overall system for tracking and measuring results. Two examples explain why we report on multiple sources of data.

  1. Human Omission: About 1/3 of patients of Fertility Bridge clients do not fully complete their referral-source questionnaires.  Furthermore, the number of questionnaires entered by the practice is typically only 75% of the total number of new patient visits.  
     
  2. Limits to Digital Tracking: We track internet goals (i.e. appointment requests), but sources are frequently only attributed to the most direct channel. In simpler terms, an IVF clinic on the west coast hosts informational fertility sessions at their offices. When we run ads on social media, registrations increase. On the submission form, registrants overwhelmingly check Facebook or Instagram as the sources of how they came to hear about the event. Still, when we look at our goals in Google Analytics or Hubspot, a much smaller percentage are credited for coming directly from any one channel. 

Instead of relying on numbers that provide incomplete information, we use a proven system that includes our Indispensable Indicators. Functioning as a whole, the system allows us to measure and understand the effectiveness of our efforts, and subsequently, the money we're spending. These are the seven steps of the Fertility Bridge Proven Process for Tracking Marketing Results that we implement with each new client.

1). Put the right person in the right seat

Someone inside the clinic must own your Indispensable Indicators. If these data are not readily available and accounted for, then the marketing strategy operates aimlessly. This person is often the practice administrator. He or she may be the clinic liaison, marketing director, or billing manager. Ideally, this is someone who is fascinated with being a student of your practice's key performance indicators. If the person has neither the authority nor the capacity to implement all of the steps involved in the Proven Process for Tracking Results, the point is moot. Whoever is chosen, he or she is responsible for reporting on the Indispensable Indicators every single month.

2). Collect existing data

Because of clinical reporting, you likely know your clinic's IVF volume, year-to-year, but that doesn't tell us anything about our monthly progress. We still don't know what impact individual marketing efforts have had on profit and patient volume.  In this phase of the Proven Process for Tracking Results, we gather all of the information we have for our Six Indispensable Indicators and enter them into one file. It's likely that you don't have complete figures for all six indicators, but partial information is a start. If you use a practice software like eIVF, you may be able to readily pull some of these fields.

3). create uniformity

Even when clinics do record some of their necessary KPIs, we at Fertility Bridge often find that we're not comparing apples to apples. The way you define your Indispensable Indicators can be customized to your practice, but they must be defined to ensure continuity. 

Monthly recorded table of Indispensable Indicators

Monthly recorded table of Indispensable Indicators

1). Lead

Is a phone inquiry, a website appointment request, and an RSVP to a fertility seminar all worth the same?

2). New Patient Visit

Does this include patients who had a successful IVF cycle with your practice but come back for babies two and three? Only someone who comes to the practice for the first time? Phone consults? Couples (including same-sex couples)? Individual female patients? Male and female patients separately?

Define new patient visits so that there are no duplicate or missing appointment numbers.

3). New Patient Sources

One clinic on the east coast had "the internet" listed as one of four questionnaire options for more than six years. So of course, from 2010 to 2016 the number of people that came from the internet increased by nearly 70%. But the internet has changed a lot in six years. What does "the internet" mean? Online reviews? Referrals from friends through social media? Searching for reproductive health services?

Offer different referral sourcing options to which respondents check "yes" or "no" to reduce ambiguity.

4). IVF cycles: For business purposes, how do we define an IVF cycle? Starts? Frozen transfers? Once the cycle bills? Does our number include restarts? Cancellations?

Again, the objective is to avoid duplication. An IVF cycle, as it is billed, should be unique to a particular month.

5). IVF Conversion Rates

If New Patient Visits and IVF Cycles aren't uniform, this number will start to look really funky.

6). Gross Revenue

4). Set benchmarks

Once we have our figures, month-to-month, we have clear benchmarks from which to measure our progress. The more months of data, the more reliable the benchmarks. It typically takes Fertility Bridge clients at least three months to collect this data; it's not readily available.

5). Set Internet Goals

Marketing dashboard customized for fertility clinics

Marketing dashboard customized for fertility clinics

Many IVF clinics have appointment request forms on their websites, but most do not have goals set for these forms in Google Analytics. Using a thank-you page for these forms, we track how many appointment requests and contact forms we receive on a weekly and monthly basis. Depending on your practice's size, you may have anywhere from fifty to several hundred of these forms completed in a given month. The person in charge of your Indispensable Indicators  checks how many inquiries went on to schedule new patient visits. Once we know how many new patient visits lead to an IVF cycle, we can even assign dollar values to these goals. 

6). Link the appropriate online properties

All vessels must row in the same direction. When we run a pay-per-click campaign on Google, Bing, or Yahoo, for example, we sync with your website's Google Analytics account so that we can measure the effectiveness of your campaigns in one place. When we run Facebook and Instagram ads, we install a pixel on your practice's website to show us how our ads convert. It's another way of seeing how many people fill out a form submission when coming from these channels.

Tracking how many request appointment forms came from a Facebook campaign

Tracking how many request appointment forms came from a Facebook campaign

7). Collect Weekly. Report Monthly

Tracking these numbers at the end of each month would be a bear. It's much easier to record them as they come in. Weekly recording also provides greater accountability; we don't wait until the end of the month to realize that we are missing our Indispensable Indicators

the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

We have a year of data on IVF cycles, patient volume, and referral sourcing. At month 12, we feel comfortable making a shift in our marketing strategy. We decide to take half of the budget that we had spent on print advertising, and spend it on paid social media advertising. How do we track the return on investment of our new advertising campaign?

If we've only recorded one number, we likely won't be able to.  If between months 12 and 15, however, we have the necessary data to see

  • A 30% increase in new patient appointments.
  • An 18% increase in new appointment requests submitted from visitors coming from social media, and
  • A 50% increase in the number of patients who report coming to our practice after having seen us on social media

then we can reasonably conclude that that marketing campaign was successful.

In a vacuum, none of these figures give us enough information to gauge the effectiveness of our marketing efforts. Because there are so many factors for which to account, we implement one system to measure and understand them. Individually, they are incomplete, and can therefore be misleading. When we organize and rely on our Six Indispensable Indicators, however, our IVF marketing's return on investment becomes greater than ever.

For more tools and tactics on measuring your fertility marketing efforts, read chapter 2 of my free e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Fertility Marketing.

 

 

5 Hidden Patterns Uncovered Across the Top 25 Fertility Doctors in Patient Reviews

By Griffin Jones

What a world it is where patients can form an opinion about their fertility doctor before they even schedule an appointment. A 2013 study shows that 90% of respondents reported that online reviews influenced their purchase decisions. Through public feedback from their peers, people dealing with infertility have a plethora of information to make their decision from online review sites that exist for the benefit of the patient. Here's where it gets interesting.  Fertility centers can also benefit from online reviews--good, bad, or neutral--by using them to deeply understand and adapt to patient habits. By carefully examining the online reputations of the most highly rated fertility specialists in the country, we have further decoded the messages that patients are sending loud and clear.

We know from initial research that the success of an individual's treatments using Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) greatly influences how they write their review of their fertility clinic. Positive fertility clinic reviews are three and a half times more likely to mention a baby or pregnancy than to mention lack of success or make no mention at all. Equally, negative reviews are three times more likely to reference leaving the practice before success than to mention a baby or to make no mention at all. We also know that positive fertility center reviews outnumber negative reviews by more than 2 to 1. Getting some ideas from Joseph Davis, DO of RMA of New York, we wanted to dig beyond these observations to try to answer more questions: 

  1. Do the same patterns apply to fertility doctors with almost no negative reviews?
  2. Does an REI's rating correspond to his or her practice's success rates?
  3. Do the clinics with the highest success rates have high online ratings?
  4. What is the correlation between an REI's gender and his or her online reputation?
  5. Are younger docs rated more highly than their veteran colleagues? 

Limits to the data

First,  several review sites are popular for rating fertility doctors, and they are not uniform. Some sites, like Healthgrades, offer only star ratings without qualitative responses. Other sites likes Fertility Authority, Vitals, Google, and Zocdoc have the option to leave star ratings with or without comments. Yelp and RateMDs include qualitative responses with their reviews. Yelp tends to be more deeply populated by place (practice) reviews as opposed to reviews for individual doctors. In the latest phase of this research project analyzing fertility doctor reviews, I chose to use RateMDs because it is the easiest platform to search by sub-specialty.

There are 2,264 reproductive endocrinologists listed on RateMDs, mostly from the United States and Canada. We can search them by both highest-rated overall and per metropolitan area. Still, RateMDs isn't a perfect source. There are many duplicate profiles and only 1,205 (53%) of the physician profiles have any reviews at all. Furthermore, the rate of adoption for every review site varies widely by market. On RateMDs for example, there are 929 reviews of reproductive endocrinologists in Toronto, but in a very similarly-sized market, Houston, there are only 380. Lastly, you may be listed as an OBGYN, and not as an REI (or both in the case of duplicate listings). With that said, when we check someone's RateMDs rating (if they have ten or more reviews) against reviews on other platforms, we find they are consistent. 

I'm really excited by a newer review site that Dr. Dan Nayot brought to my attention, called Fertility IQ. You may have thought it was my site if I sent you the link to your listing. It isn't. Though I sometimes wish it was, because much of the data that I aggregate manually, they will soon be able to export with the click of a button. Most doctors don't yet have enough reviews for meaningful comparison, but I see this site becoming very popular over the next six to twenty-four months. The user experience (UX) for patients is outstanding and the site validates patient authenticity. Both the qualitative and quantitative questions are more in-depth than any other channel. Above all, there is a market need for a uniform, clean, and extensive platform to compare fertility doctors and clinics, and I hope this is it. In the meantime, I manually scour reviews for data like a cyber caveman.

Fertility IQ's home page

Fertility IQ's home page

Of course, there are limits to ranking clinics by IVF success rates as well. Partly because the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART) appeals that success rates not be used to compare clinics. Consequently, they don't rank them in a spreadsheet that we can easily pull. So we use the site, fertilitysucceessrates.com. While Fertility Success Rates makes it easy to check the top 25 clinics in the United States, some clinics are missing from the site's overall listings, even though their data can be found in the annual CDC report. Despite the limits in our data, we continue to notice some interesting patterns. 

1). Do the same patterns apply to doctors with almost no negative reviews?

Yes...and no. I analyzed the first ten reviews of each of the top 25 rated reproductive endocrinologists. Of the 250 reviews

  • 164 explicitly referenced a baby or pregnancy
  • 70 contained neither a reference to a baby or pregnancy nor mention of lack of success
  • 1 mentioned a lack of IVF success
  • 10 described that they were still in treatment
  • 3 referenced treatment other than ART
  • 2 were negative reviews
Top 25 fertility doctor reviews mention pregnancy

So these doctors were actually even more likely to have their reviewers mention a baby or pregnancy than their colleagues at large, 66% compared with 60%. What's interesting is that their reviewers were also almost twice as likely to make no mention at all, 28% to 16%. The difference came from those who described still undergoing treatment; 14% for all positive fertility clinic reviews and only 4% for these top 25. Only 1% of these reviews were negative or explicitly referenced a lack of success in treatment. What could be the reason? We know these doctors don't enjoy IVF success rates of 99%. Let's come back to this after we investigate how clinical success rates impact online reputation.

2). Does an REI's rating correspond to his or her practice's success rates?

No. Watch as we take the top 25 ranked reproductive endocrinologists on RateMDs. Then we check them against the top 25 clinics from the 2013 SART reports. Do you have any guesses of how many doctors appeared in both spreadsheets?

Randle Corfman, MD of the Midwest Center for Reproductive Health was the only one. In other words, while success of ART treatment largely predicts how someone will leave a review, success rates do not directly correlate to a physician's online reputation. 

These are the highest rated reproductive endocrinologists on ratemds.com 

These are the highest rated reproductive endocrinologists on ratemds.com 

3). Do practices with higher success rates have higher online ratings?

Not by much. It should be stated that practice ratings can be even more difficult to garner than individual physician ratings. For those in the top 25 in success rates, I used the review site that offered the most ratings per clinic. If there were less than ten responses for a clinic on any one review site, I left their rating blank. In a rating scale of one to five, the ratings of 19 of the top 25 clinics in success rates ranged from 2 to 4.5. The mean rating was 3.7 and the median was 3.5. The median for fertility centers at large lies between 3 and 3.5. 

Top 25 U.S. fertility clinics by 2013 success rates

Top 25 U.S. fertility clinics by 2013 success rates

4). What is the correlation between the gender of the REI and his or her online rating?

The correlation (or lack thereof) of a physician's gender to fertility doctor reviews will be interesting to further explore.

  • Do patients have higher standards of judgement for one gender?
  • Does each gender tend to employ different communication styles that are more or less effective?
  • Do patient biases cause a message to be received differently from one gender than another?

This is what the current data show us:

  • Of the top 50 rated REIs on RateMDs, 22% are women and 78% are men.
  • Of the bottom 50 (of those with a minimum of ten reviews), exactly 50% are men and 50% are women. 
Top 50 rated fertility doctors in US
*Of those with ten reviews or more

*Of those with ten reviews or more

To try to offer some context, Valerie Baker, MD, President of the Society for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility (SREI), references a recent REI workforce study published by Fertility and Sterility. 38% of the respondents were female and 61% were male. 

5). What is the correlation between ratings and years in practice?

I often hear people say that new physicians coming out of residency and fellowship are more savvy of their online reputations than are veterans in the field. I don't know that we have a sufficient way of being able to validate or disprove this inference at this time. We would have to know the year that every REI completed her or his fellowship and their ages; data that isn't easy to find. I can only offer some marketing insight.

I see at least three doctors in the top 25 who I know are under age 40. Two of them are the top rated fertility doctors in metro areas of larger than six million people. Newer doctors can leverage a high online rating to negotiate a partnership plan with a recruiting practice because they can build their online reputation and social media loyalty to become the highest rated fertility doctor in their area before they even complete their fellowship. Conversely, recruiting clinics can look at a physician's online rating and social media presence to make more educated personnel decisions. 

Decoding the bigger picture

What lessons are we left with? No clinic and no physician can boast IVF success rates of 99% or anywhere close to it. Yet we count at least a few dozen doctors whose negative reviews are less than 1% of their online reputation. When we look even closer, we see that while success of individual ART treatments influences patient reviews, clinics' success rates don't necessarily predict their online ratings.

This shows us that we are not destined to have a third of our patients report dissatisfaction. As success rates majorly improve across the field, we see that patients still expect more from their care experience than just clinical treatment. Patients who haven't found success through ART may not leave rave reviews or promote their practice on social media and we can appreciate that. Still, if we can deliver to them a better experience than they ever would have had without us, they may not feel as though their only recourse is to express their disappointment online. Analyzing how fertility clinic ratings relate to ART success rates helps us understand exactly to what patients hold their fertility centers accountable.

 

All In This Together: 4 Ways Practices and Patients Are Uniting Around Infertility Awareness Week

By Griffin Jones

If I asked you to name what comes between September and November, you might answer Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) before you say October. Is there any oncology center in America that doesn't participate in breast cancer awareness month? Is there anyone who doesn't recognize those pink ribbons? Over 1.5 million people participate in the Susan G. Komen races alone. With major partners like the NFL and Proctor and Gamble, the month is almost too popular; to the point where criticism is made that brands exploit the cause for their own profitability. Meanwhile, all the infertility community wants is recognition of their disease and the resources to treat it.  Yet of course BCAM is so much more widely known than National Infertility Awareness Week (NIAW). After all, statistics show that 12% of all U.S. women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. That's dramatically higher than the 11.9% of women who receive infertility services within their lifetime. 

Oh.

Infertility lacks a giant brand champion, like the National Football League

Infertility lacks a giant brand champion, like the National Football League

Breast cancer is a serious disease that causes horrible hardship on millions of families. It deserves every bit of attention that it receives. I hope 2016 is the year when the infertility community acts in solidarity for the same.

NIAW 2016 is quickly approaching, April 24-30 (May 12-20 in Canada), and clinics and patients have a vested interest in spreading awareness about infertility. The lack of infertility awareness is one big problem that compounds many others. Practices have time and priority constraints that sometimes keep them from being fully active in their promotion of the cause. Those struggling with infertility have priorities of their own, and for some, infertility may be too personal of an issue to discuss with others. I understand; no one can tell you that you should talk about infertility in an open setting. It's a personal decision and one only you can make. It's worth examining, however, how obscuring infertility from the public eye compounds the other issues that come with it.

1). Social PRESSURE

"When are you going to have a baby?"
"Don't you want kids?"
"You can have my kids."
"You can always adopt."
"Just relax and it will happen."

People ask these questions because they know very little about the infertility journey. Comments like these are what spurred Tyra Banks and Chrissy Teigen to inspire the #stopasking hashtag in the fall of 2015. I know how much this bothers you because I see the companionship that forms around the #ttc (trying to conceive) community every time this pain point comes up. Some of the most popular themes that I post to social media are the articles that talk about what not to say to someone with infertility.

One of the most popular infertility e-cards on Pinterest

One of the most popular infertility e-cards on Pinterest

Discussing your plans for children makes for easy conversation...for someone else. Most of your friends and acquaintances have no idea how common infertility is or how painful such otherwise ordinary questions can be. I would have had no idea if I didn't work in the infertility space. I'm sure I would have made many of the same stupid comments, all with the best of intentions. If these conversations bring you great pain, it may be less painful to participate in the conversations that help educate people.

Social pressure may also be projected onto fertility clinics and their staff. When someone spends thousands of dollars on IVF, they are essentially paying you to solve their problem of infertility...problem...singular. Of course infertility actually becomes an amalgam of many problems. Because you are the one being paid to "solve the problem", by default, you can be assigned responsibility for all of them. By participating in the greater cause to address the social pressure that your patients face, you may be able to allay some of the pressure that you feel as well.

2). Financial BURDEN

At issue: far too many people think of infertility treatment as elective. Only 15 states mandate that insurances cover any kind of infertility treatment and of those, RESOLVE grades only five with an A.  Legislators and employers don't feel hurried to extend coverage because they don't perceive it as a great enough priority to their constituents or employees. If infertility was more widely talked about, and greater societal emphasis was given to its treatment, less cost would fall on you as a patient. It's a big deal when an insurance company tries to avoid paying for treatment of other diseases. If everyone you knew understood the severity of infertility, far more companies and states would mandate coverage for IVF and other services. Having to pay for IVF out of pocket is owed in no small part to a lack of knowledge about the disease.

States ranked by RESOLVE

States ranked by RESOLVE

Clinics, too, face financial limits when public understanding of infertility is poor. There are three reasons.

  1. Your "word-of-mouth" referral network is dramatically smaller than its full potential if your patients don't feel comfortable speaking about infertility. A patient cannot recommend you to someone who would really benefit from hearing about her experience if the conversation isn't welcome to take place. 
  2. People are sometimes terrified to see an infertility specialist, because they have insufficient information and a lack of assurance from confidants. Fear reduces the total number of people who should be coming to your office.
  3. Cost is the single greatest factor that prevents patients from proceeding with treatment for infertility. Dr. Tarun Jain of Chicago IVF finds that "in states where IVF coverage is mandated, about thee times as many people use IVF than in non-mandated states. It's about the same multiple seen in European countries which cover IVF." If infertility was enough of a public concern, your center could be doing three times the number of cycles that you  do now, and many of your patients wouldn't be overwhelmed with the stress of the cost.

3). Emotional STRESS

Many people going through infertility say they feel much better when they are able talk to others who can validate their feelings and experiences. "I am so happy to have found all of you" is a very common sentiment among the #ttccommunity on Instagram. Many more would love to connect with people who share their experience: they just don't know they exist. Not all support groups are equal and some types of support may be better fit for you than others. You may feel more comfortable face to face, or you might like an online setting with anonymity. Some may prefer not to connect with anyone at all, and that's perfectly fine, but everyone should be informed of their options. Most people struggling with infertility say that they found their support resources on their own. Neither peer support nor mental health professionals (MHP) can eliminate the burden of stress that accompanies infertility, but a lack of general attention to infertility lays an unnecessary barrier to emotional relief.

Photo from Good Housekeeping

Photo from Good Housekeeping

Emotional stress has even broader implications for practitioners than only their patients' mental health . According to a study by Courtney Lynch, PhD, MHP, of The Ohio State University School of Medicine, women with high stress levels had decreased odds of pregnancy of 29% compared to women with low levels. While there's no data to prove that greater emotional support will increase the likelihood of pregnancy, research from the University of Michigan Health System concludes that peer support helps reduce stress, isolation, and depression.

Equally, my research shows that only 2% of negative fertility center reviews mention a successful pregnancy or the birth of a baby. The contrapositive is true for positive fertility center reviews. What's interesting is that several dozen fertility doctors in the United States and Canada have very few negative reviews. We know that their success rates are not above 80%. For reasons not yet defined, patients feel they have other venues for venting their stress. Neither the clinic, nor the doctor, nor the nursing staff should be the focus of an individual's emotional stress, so it is in the practice's interest to empower patients to access other avenues of support if they so choose.

4). Medical Impact

A very common concern shared by reproductive endocrinology and infertility (REI) specialists is when a woman waits too long to be seen by a fertility doctor. Time can be a crucial factor in the process of fertility treatment and if a woman is reluctant to schedule an initial consultation, she may be equipped with less options later on. Melissa Campbell of the infertility awareness blog, Triumphs and Trials, shares that women dealing with infertility are often hesitant to see an REI because they are nervous that the doctor will pressure them into IVF.

"To me, it felt like a death wish," Campbell says. "I'm going to go [to a fertility clinic] and they're going to push me into IVF. I feel like I have to do everything possible before I even go see an RE"  

"We need to remove the perception that REI equals IVF," says Dr. Matt Retzloff of Fertility Center of San Antonio. "One of the trade-offs is, the longer we wait, the less tools we have in the tool chest to help out. We want to see you sooner. It gives us more options."

Is it a reach to say that clinics' success rates would improve if couples and individuals coping with infertility scheduled their first appointments earlier in life? Very generally, patients would have increased probabilities of having a baby if they were able to take advantage of more options and benefit from earlier detection. As a society, we can both receive and deliver better medical services if the public is more alert to the challenges of infertility.

Take action: #Startasking

It's time to team up. Practices, advocates, couples and individuals dealing with infertility, and their collective communities can act together to turn the tide to bolster understanding of infertility. This year, RESOLVE has laid the groundwork for a very powerful social media campaign. Instead of a theme that demands that people stop asking, the #startasking initiative addresses social stigma head-on, by encouraging people to learn more about infertility, its implications, and options for treatment. Working together, and taking advantage of the tremendous power of digital media, here are four ways to make National Infertility Awareness Week 2016 the most successful yet.

1). Snap those selfies
 People love to see their fertility doctors and nurses through social media. People love seeing IVF babies. People still struggling with infertility love to see their supporters from the #ttccommunity. Download the official NIAW selfie sign which includes a #startasking bubble to write in your #startasking topic. Here's the easiest way to approach the topics you'll pick for your #startasking questions. 

  • For clinics: What are the five most common misconceptions that your new patients have about infertility and treatment? These usually tie into patients' greatest fears. For example, if you find that your patients are reluctant to schedule an initial consultation because they are afraid that they will be pressured into using IVF, your post might be, "#startasking us about options other than IVF".
  • For people with infertility: This is your chance. You get to control the conversation for once. Instead of holding back tears because someone else took your conversation in the direction of when you will have kids, this is your opportunity to decide what you want people to know about your journey. 

2). Ask with video
Instagram video allows for fifteen seconds and there's no such limit on Facebook. For no cost, use your smartphone to record your video questions and post them on your own channels and those of others. Practices can both pose and answer general questions to and from their communities. People dealing with infertility can record their questions and answers and share them with both the #infertilitycommunity and their clinics.

3). Share each other's content
I normally don't recommend that clinics spend too much time on Twitter, but if you have a Twitter account, this is the time when it makes sense to post and share other groups' content using the #startasking and #niaw hasthtags. Share RESOLVE's posts on Facebook and Twitter. The #ttccommunity is very good at sharing content, even on Instagram where there is no native reposting function. Sharing one another's posts about #NIAW is a tremendous way to increase the visibility of the community.

4). Tag each other
I know I needn't say more, #ttccommunity. You are the best at tagging one another and bringing each other into the conversation. I hope that #startasking and #niaw make for a very meaningful dialogue for all of you. While fertility centers can't tag patients without the proper authorization, we can tag @resolveorg and other support resources, and even tag other clinics. Yes, competing fertility centers can collaborate on content distribution. Competitors joining forces for a specific cause is often very well-received, like when the three major news networks came together for the fight against cancer.  Patients find it reassuring and media outlets pay greater attention.

Push for The Turning Point

Nearly every problem we face in the infertility space is compounded when awareness about infertility is low. You face unfair social pressure and financial stress because not enough people are conscious about the devastation caused by infertility. Medical treatment is denied to hundreds of thousands of people every year. Other medical conditions have found tremendous recognition through their awareness efforts and the infertility world has an opportunity to unite in a way that benefits everyone and gains the acknowledgment it deserves. RESOLVE President and CEO, Barbara Collura, encourages "the entire infertility community to call attention to this disease. By asking the tough questions about infertility, we not only have an opportunity to raise awareness about this disease, but also to motivate all who are touched by infertility to commit to the cause.”

At the very least, National Infertility Awareness Week 2016 is an opportunity to gain more exposure for your practice and more understanding for your fight as a patient. As a specific time-frame with a specific goal, it is easy for the media and public to understand and support. More ambitiously, it could be a turning point in this long, exhausting struggle of an issue that people know so little about, or worse, doubt its seriousness. You don't have to hope that a major network reporter will pick up your press release and decide to cover infertility awareness week. We have the power to call attention to the cause with the content that we create. Our own social media efforts give us the distribution to reach beyond our immediate communities. Our creativity will determine how far it will go. Patients, practices, and advocates are coming together to benefit the entire field. 

 

3 Common Things Fertility Practices Do On the Internet that Make HIPAA Lawyers Cringe

By Griffin Jones

"We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature."--Edmund Burke

In the summer of 2015, I asked my e-mail list of fertility doctors if if they had any questions about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as it relates to internet marketing. Except I didn't write HIPAA. I wrote HIPPA. Thankfully, someone who read the e-mail, corrected me. I was a little embarrassed. I knew what the acronym stood for, but I still wrote it incorrectly. Why would I spell it that way? 

What happens when patients want to engage with you?

What happens when patients want to engage with you?

It wasn't until several weeks later that I realized why I would misspell such a commonly known acronym. It's because nearly everyone spells it that way. You may have made this mistake, I see it from physicians frequently, even on their websites (sometimes even from lawyers). Heck, even the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration misspells HIPAA. My observation isn't that we're all phonetic spellers, it's that we don't have a great deal of familiarity with such a broad legal statute.

Technology, culture, and the law

I don't envy your position of having to handle protected health information (PHI). So why, as a marketer, am I so interested in learning more about privacy regulations? Because technology moves faster than the law can possibly hope to keep pace with. I'll take this one step further; the way human beings annex technology into their daily lives moves faster than they can properly regulate it. We see legislation failing to keep up with assisted reproductive technology (ART) across the field. We see antiquated laws or delays in new regulations for driverless cars, music sharing, and even new currencies like Bitcoin. Why wouldn't we expect a similar legal lag in privacy and communication?

Unlike many disciplines in medicine, and contrary to what some people in our own space still seem to believe, fertility is an extremely social category. The #infertility hasthtag has been posted on Instagram 142,335 times--up 30% from when I reported on the rise of Instagram among the infertility community, three months ago. Patients post medical records with their practice and doctor's name. Sometimes they just say hello. When do we engage? When do we not?

The phrase "social media" does not appear anywhere in HIPAA, so we are left to turn to lawyers to interpret the law. That's why I interviewed seven of them. Their insight spans beyond my scope of internet marketing, and I suggest you educate your team on HIPAA because all of the attorneys agreed that training is the best way to prevent a breach. I recommend you consult your own attorney often and that is not me. I'm just someone who knows how infertility patients communicate and what they use to connect, which leads me to observe some scenarios in which fertility centers may be at risk of privacy law violations.

Be human, be careful

We have to imagine that future laws and statutes will have to be more explicit with rules of engagement between patients and providers in digital media and communication technology. I hope that legislators involve physicians, patient advocacy groups, and tech developers in their consideration of new regulations, because I worry that a lack of understanding in how communication technology is actually used could lead to limits on patients' free speech, and ultimately hinder the standard of care. Reservedly, I'm optimistic because millennials are only beginning to change healthcare and we are a demographic that demands online engagement. In the meantime, I am paying very close attention to how policies and technologies develop, so that we can continually adjust and evolve when called for. I'll say it one last time--I'm not an attorney. Talk to an attorney. Maybe I'm too conservative, but this is how I see the intersection of law, culture, and technology at this moment. From what I observe as someone who monitors the fertility marketing landscape, these are common mistakes:

1). Posting pictures of baby collages

In 2014, the New York Times published an article about fertility centers having to take down baby photos in their office because it is a violation of HIPAA to display any of the 18 identifiers of PHI without explicit authorization. 

18 identifiers of Protected Health Information; from  UCSF

18 identifiers of Protected Health Information; from UCSF

It seems that most of the fertility centers took down the baby photos, though they didn't necessarily have to. It is possible for you to post baby photos to your website or social media accounts and keep them in the office for public view. If you have a signed HIPAA authorization on record for every image in the collage or baby wall, for the purposes of external marketing and social media, you are allowed to post those pictures. If I were a betting man, however, my hunch would be that you have not done that.

2). Sharing pictures from the fertility center baby reunion. 

Trust me, I know how this hurts. The picture of everyone--team members, physicians, former patients, spouses, and adorable children--makes for the best fertility center cover photo of all time. Many of you have this very picture on your websites, place pages, and social media accounts. Again, unless you have a signed authorization from every single patient in the picture, this isn't legal. Would it be likely that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) would take action against you? I doubt it, but I always play it cautious in this space. Just last month, a physical therapy provider agreed to pay $25,000 in fines for posting pictures of patients to their website without the proper authorization. This doesn't mean you can't post the incredible pictures of your wonderful baby reunion, it means you should have HIPAA authorization forms on-hand at the event. 

HIPAA Authorizations have six core elements:

  1.  A specific and meaningful description of the information to be used or disclosed.
  2. The name or other specific identification of the person(s), or class of persons, authorized to make the requested use or disclosure.
  3. The name or other specific identification of the persons(s), or class of persons, to whom the fertility practice may make the requested use or disclosure (i.e., the intended recipients).
  4. Description of each purpose of the requested use or disclosure. 
  5. Must contain an expiration date or an expiration event.
  6. The signature of the individual and the date.

And they must include these three statements:

  1. Individual’s right to revoke the Authorization.
  2. Clarification that the covered entity is not permitted to condition the provision of treatment on the execution of a valid Authorization. 
  3. Explanation that there is a potential that the information may be re-disclosed by the recipient of the information and that the recipient may not be required to comply with the Privacy Rule.

You can borrow an example of a simple authorization form from Tulane University Medical Group. Most of the people at your baby reunions really want you to use their picture. A socially appropriate way of asking their permission might be

  • "Hi everyone, we would hate to leave you out of our event photos, but we can only share them publicly if we have your authorization. Please come over to our table to sign the form if you'd like to be in the pictures." If you have a photographer on site, you may even consider having a team member accompany them with a clipboard of the appropriate forms. Don't worry, in an environment like your baby reunion, most people would be disappointed if you didn't ask.

3). Publicly responding with too much information

Often when I see this, it is in response to a negative review. Physicians sometimes refute complaints by using details to support their argument. This makes for poor marketing, atrocious customer service, and worse yet, it may be illegal. If any of the 18 patient identifiers can be traced to that person's review account (a full face photo in Yelp, a name on Facebook, and e-mail address on a Google account, etc.), that would be a breach of PHI. Please, please, please, resist the temptation to respond to a reviewer with any of their information.

This is an example of a potentially illegal, and otherwise awful way of responding to a fertility patient review

This is an example of a potentially illegal, and otherwise awful way of responding to a fertility patient review

To be fair, it is isn't only the negative reviews in which I see doctors and nurses respond with too much information. Sometimes, with the very best of intentions, doctors and nurses comment on a patient photo to the effect of "I'm so glad we could help you through this. That was such a hard time for you." We suppose this is of much lower risk than responding with too much information to a negative review; after all, do you think a person who was very upset with you wouldn't take the first chance they could get to file a complaint? But once more, I would rather play it safe. If you look at the way I respond to patients, I really don't even acknowledge that they were a patient at the practice. We want to be human, authentic, and emotionally sensitive in our engagements, but we also want to make sure we don't add any patient information. We can tell them their photo is lovely, thank them for their kind words, and wish them a great week. If it is a complaint, we can tell them we are sorry to hear that and we would like to hear more from them offline. That's it. Keep it very simple.

Pay attention and adjust accordingly

There is a lot of fear mongering on the web about privacy and patient engagement, and I'm concerned that practices will be afraid to engage their patients online, which is a critical part of patient relations in our connected world. Equally, extreme caution is necessary to protect the trust and privacy of our communities. Because we want to engage our patients effectively, authentically, and respect privacy laws, we have to be smart. You should consult with your attorney often because this is just one of the many areas of our field and our world that is changing faster than laws can keep pace with. I am guardedly optimistic that as new generations impact healthcare, more widely-adopted practices for patient engagement will establish themselves. In the meantime, we can pay attention to legal, technological, and social developments and continually evolve our policies and habits. 

Avoid Common HIPAA Violations: An Interview with George Indest

By Griffin Jones

This is the seventh interview in a series that explores the crossroads of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and digital media.

George Indest

George Indest

George Indest practices healthcare law in Florida and across the country. Mr. Indest’s comments don’t provide legal advice, but they do offer us some insight on how the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) impacts digital media for fertility centers. I asked Mr. Indest about some of the more common mistakes that practices have made to lead to a HIPAA breach.

Indest: Very often, breaches are inadvertent disclosures of protected health information (PHI) to people who didn’t have authorization to view it. Unauthorized disclosures may even include the patient’s immediate family members. Unless the patient has signed a HIPAA authorization for their family members to be able to view their information, the provider cannot release those records. There are several inadvertent mistakes that lead to HIPAA breaches, often including unintended recipients of patient information. This can include sending or forwarding an e-mail to the wrong person, replying to all instead of to an individual, or sending a fax to a recipient whose number is only one digit different from the intended recipient.

What happens when a patient releases their own information on a blog, place page, or social media channel operated by the practice?

The patient is free to release whatever information they want. That in no way effects the practice or the covered entity. I know of no legal obligation to take down patient posts. If the channels are open to the public, it’s the patient’s right and decision to disclose that information. That’s not covered by HIPAA. But, if the channels are open to the public, the covered entity needs to make warnings available that the practice does not have control over who can see that information.

What are the implications when the practice responds to the patient? Does a general response disclose a patient-physician relationship?

I don’t think there’s any sort of violation at all in a response that doesn’t contain PHI. Social interactions take place between patients and physicians all the time. There’s no breach of anyone’s confidentiality unless medical information is discussed. With that said, I have read of breaches wherein a practice responded to a patient’s Better Business Bureau (BBB) complaint and disclosed some of their records to refute the complaint. This is an unauthorized disclosure of PHI and a clear HIPAA violation. The patient is free to release whatever information they want, but that doesn’t authorize the practice to do the same. Even if it is a positive review, where the practice wants to share or retweet information that the patient has already made public, it would be on the safe side to get HIPAA authorization.

What should healthcare providers be doing right now to ensure HIPAA compliance?

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have indicated more HIPAA audits and investigations. There are more law suits and more complaints of breaches than ever before. Personnel need constant training. They need constant reminders of HIPAA risks. Go overboard in your risk assessment and risk management. There are plenty of plaintiff attorneys looking for suits and there are plenty of things that shouldn’t be occurring. Personnel not directly involved in a patient’s care should not be viewing that patient’s records, and it’s a risk that happens far too often. Education and training need to be provided on an ongoing basis.

George Indest is the principal of the Health Law Firm in Altamonte Springs, Florida. The Health Law Firm, concentrates in representing health care providers, exclusively. Their attorneys include those Board Certified in Health Law. If you would like to learn more from George’s legal expertise, you can contact him here.

Preparing for HIPAA Compliance Audits: An Interview with Valerie Breslin Montague

By Griffin Jones

This is the sixth interview in a series exploring the implications of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as it relates to digital media.

Valerie Breslin Montague

Valerie Breslin Montague

Valerie Breslin Montague is an attorney who specializes in HIPAA in Chicago, IL. Ms. Montague’s comments do not contain legal advice, but they do educate us about some of the risks that face fertility centers with respect to HIPAA and social media. I started the interview with a topic that we are all very interested in--what are the implications when patients include their own information on a practice’s website, blog, place page, or social media channel?

Montague: Generally, under federal and state privacy laws, when a patient is forthcoming with their own information, that’s not a disclosure by the practice. Anything posted by the patient would be their disclosure. With that said, it would be wise for practices to include that publicly in their social media policy. Patients should know that social media channels and review sites are public places, and anything posted on the internet should be considered permanent. The practice should inform the public that they do not have control over who can see that information, once posted. When responding to patient comments, it would be wise to do so in a general manner (such as “thank you” or “we appreciate that”). I wouldn’t confirm the patient’s visit, or add any new information.

Is there a danger of disclosing the physician-patient relationship even if it’s a basic acknowledgement of the comment?

I don’t think there’s any guidance here, but I don’t believe that’s something that would be enforced as a HIPAA violation. I think the government would have a hard time arguing that was a breach of PHI. If the government wanted to be very overreaching, I suppose they could, but I don’t see a very big risk there. The practice wouldn’t want to do anything to amplify or further share the patient’s message, such as adding a hash tag, tagging another person, or retweeting or sharing the post, without a proper HIPAA authorization.  The practice can directly message or e-mail the commenter, to ask them to complete a HIPAA authorization. Then they can share the posted content for purposes agreed upon in the authorization.

Why don’t the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issue guidelines on practice engagement on digital media?

Hopefully OCR will in the near future but its focus now is on enforcement and audits.

Tell us about the pending round of HIPAA compliance audits.

OCR has been warning of a second round of audits for more than a year. The first round of HIPAA compliance audits took place in 2012. This time, the audit will include both covered entities (healthcare providers and health insurers) and their “business associates” (EHR providers, billing companies, etc.) The agency has said they will audit a large scope of entities from large health systems to small practices.

What are common vulnerabilities that might be exposed for healthcare providers during these audits?

 It’s very common to have HIPAA policies in place for privacy obligations. Providers have been doing a pretty good job of keeping up in that respect. Some smaller or newer business associates may need more help. Where I’m concerned that many people may fail to meet compliance is their requirement to do a security risk assessment. They need to check the security of everything that impacts PHI. Once strengths and weaknesses have been analyzed, a risk management plan has to be implemented.

Not having a “business associate” contract in place is also a risk for both the healthcare provider and the business associate. The arrangement, not the agreement, determines if the relationship exists, and both parties are culpable if a signed contract is not in place.

What should healthcare providers be doing right now to ensure HIPAA compliance?

Providers should be prepared for risks before any incidents might occur. It is much easier to correct security weaknesses before an audit or investigation, and much more difficult to do so in the midst of one. Our firm (Nixon Peabody) works with providers and their vendors to review HIPAA compliance programs and implement any necessary updates before issues arise. OCR will definitely investigate any mass breach that involves over five hundred people and they may investigate smaller breaches and complaints, especially if it is a high profile case.

 It’s important to be proactive to determine where your practice stands, relative to compliance, before a complaint or breach requires it.

Valerie Breslin Montague focuses her practice on regulatory compliance, nonprofit governance and tax exemption, and HIPAA/health information privacy and security. She is a partner at the firm, Nixon Peabody, in Chicago. If you would like to learn more about HIPAA compliance and risk management, you can contact her here.


Start With The Law: An Interview on HIPAA and Social Media with Paul Hales

Paul Hales

Paul Hales

This is the fourth interview in a series exploring the implications of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) as it relates to digital media.

Paul Hales is an attorney from St. Louis, who specializes entirely in HIPAA law. Mr. Hales’ comments do not contain legal advice, but they do educate us about some of the risks that face fertility centers with respect to HIPAA and social media. Mr. Hales gives us some background on the Act.

Hales: We have to start with the law. My focus is on enabling practitioners to make use of social media and comply with the law. HIPAA was passed in 1996 with two objectives;

  1. To be able to keep insurance when switching from one provider to another.
  2. To have a uniform code for information and payment

It has had further additions since.

  • The privacy regulations were added in 2003. 
  • The HIPAA security rule was added in 2005 
  • HITECH was passed in 2009. 
  • In 2013, the Omnibus rule was added to HIPAA to extend liability to “business associates”.

What is a business associate?

A “business associate” is a person or entity that performs certain functions or activities that involve the use or disclosure of protected health information on behalf of, or provides services to, a covered entity.

What are common areas in which covered entities and businesses associates fail to meet HIPAA compliance?

  • Protected Health Information (PHI) is made up of 18 identifiers, including but not limited to name, e-mail address, full face photos, and date of birth. 
  • Under HIPAA, every health care practice or organization must designate a privacy officer. The privacy officer must perform a risk-analysis.
  • Health plans and covered health care providers are required to develop and distribute a notice that provides a clear explanation of privacy rights and practices with respect to patients’ personal health information.

What about when a patient posts their own information on a blog, social media channel, or place page operated by the practice?

It’s important to look at how HIPAA defines a website, which is any site that provides information about a covered entity’s services or benefits. Therefore, if a patient posts their own information to a site that’s owned by the practice, that is unauthorized PHI on the practice’s site. The practice has to obtain HIPAA authorization before allowing any patient content to be published to its sites.

What is necessary in a HIPAA authorization?

HIPAA Authorizations have six core elements:

  1.  A specific and meaningful description of the information to be used or disclosed.
  2. The name or other specific identification of the person(s), or class of persons, authorized to make the requested use or disclosure.
  3. The name or other specific identification of the persons(s), or class of persons, to whom the covered entity may make the requested use or disclosure (i.e., the intended recipients).
  4. Description of each purpose of the requested use or disclosure. 
  5. Must contain an expiration date or an expiration event.
  6. The signature of the individual and the date.

 

A HIPAA authorization must also include three statements.

  1. Individual’s right to revoke the Authorization.
  2. Clarification that the covered entity is not permitted to condition the provision of treatment on the execution of a valid Authorization. 
  3. Explanation that there is a potential that the information may be re-disclosed by the recipient of the information and that the recipient may not be required to comply with the Privacy Rule.

What should fertility practices be conscious of right now to minimize risk of HIPAA violations?

Recently, there has been more enforcement, and soon there will be audits. On February 16, 2016 the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) settled an enforcement action against Complete P.T., Pool & Land Physical Therapy, Inc. for impermissibly disclosing patient information in the form of testimonials on their website. HIPAA is a very extensive law. There is a lot of information on the internet that is simply wrong. HIPAA regulations are very demanding and products cannot ensure compliance. No product can be HIPAA compliant. It’s how a covered entity uses a product that makes it compliant or not.

Paul Hales is an attorney who provides legal services and consultation regarding HIPAA compliance. His software, the HIPAA e-tool helps covered entities and business associates with a complete HIPAA compliance solution. If you’re interested in an educational webinar with Mr. Hales, you can register here.

Legal Considerations When Responding to Online Patient Reviews: An Interview with Eric Goldman

Eric Goldman

Eric Goldman

This is the third interview in a series which explores digital media and the law, including questions about HIPAA and online engagement.  Eric Goldman is a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. While Mr. Goldman's answers don't provide us with legal advice, they do give us some insight into how fertility practices might consider the law when responding to patient reviews online.

Jones: Should physicians respond to reviews written about them online? Why or why not?

Goldman: In most circumstances, physicians either should not respond to online reviews or respond generically by thanking the reviewer and indicating that the physician appreciates and carefully considers online feedback. It rarely makes sense to get into substantive discussions with reviewers online. Not only could such discussions implicate HIPAA, but physicians often look thin-skinned and petty when they attempt to debate fact matters online. Furthermore, increasing the number of comments to a review may actually cause search engines to rank the content higher (a counterproductive result if the review is negative). If the physician chooses to engage a negative review about the facts (which is rarely if ever advisable), the response should discuss the office’s general practices and not discuss how those practices were applied in the reviewer’s specific situation.

J: What information should physicians never include in their responses to reviews?

G: Given the boundaries of HIPAA, there are few circumstances where a physician can discuss any individual facts about the reviewer. Indeed, it is potentially problematic to even acknowledge that the reviewer is a patient.

J: Are there different implications for responding to patients when their identities are public (ex. Facebook) vs. when they are anonymous (ex. RateMDs)?

G: I couldn’t think of any.

J: Are responses to reviews considered protected health information (PHI) if the patient posted the information?

G: It’s a risky practice for physicians to confirm information that a patient or family member voluntarily publicly disclosed.

J: What should physicians and practices always be wary of regarding online reviews and their public reputation?

G:

  1. Prospective patients are increasingly looking at other patients’ reviews when selecting physicians. I know many physicians wish this weren’t true, but there’s no point pining for an alternative universe.
  2. Prospective patients are savvy enough to discount outlier reviews. If one negative review is surrounded by multiple positive reviews, it will have minimal effect on the physician’s reputation.
  3. Patients’ reviews of their physicians are overwhelmingly positive, i.e., in some cases 90%+ of patients’ reviews are positive.
  4. If a physician deals with dozens or hundreds of patients, inevitably there will be a few unhappy patients who will vent online.For these reasons, physicians should be actively encouraging their patients to review them online. This will better inform future prospective patients, and it usually will help create a base of positive reviews that will insulate the physician from the occasional negative reviews that inevitably will come.

G: A final thought: getting negative feedback never feels good, but it can provide a candid insight into the patient’s experiences. If the physician can overcome the emotional sting of a negative review, there may be valuable customer feedback that can help physicians do a better job meeting their patients’ needs.

If you would like to read a short essay by Mr. Goldman which explores how doctors and other healthcare professionals have responded to patient reviews of their services and addresses how they should deal with patient reviews in the future, you can find it here.

The BIGGEST Marketing Challenge Facing Fertility Centers in 2016

By Griffin Jones

"If you can't measure it, you can't improve it." --Peter Drucker

Recently, I've been honing in on the fundamental problem that we face in fertility marketing. People e-mail the practice for information but never schedule a consultation. Referral networks don't always deliver the number of patients that they promised. New patients way too long to schedule their first consult with a fertility specialist. How do we prioritize finding solutions to these challenges and is there a greater problem from which they arise? Usually, our greatest problem is that we don't accurately or thoroughly track how our patients come to us.

If we don't want to waste money on fertility marketing, we need to track and measure.

If we don't want to waste money on fertility marketing, we need to track and measure.

Connecting the dots

I quickly learned that many past, present, and future patients interact with their practice through social media. I also learned that many patients choose their fertility doctor because of the recommendation of someone they know. We can view and measure how patients talk about their fertility clinics online. Yet, missing links remain regarding how we quantify this  "word of mouth" activity into new patient consultations. My goal is to continually reverse engineer how a complete stranger makes the decision to schedule her initial consultation at a fertility office.

We can spend a lot of money on marketing. It's one  of the reasons we're reluctant to spend any money on it at all. When I talk to reproductive endocrinologists (RE) for the first time, they often view any new marketing investment as an additional expense. There's only one reason we view marketing as something where we part with money, instead of make money: we don't know to what extent it's going to work. If we were 100% certain that any marketing effort, would individually yield more revenue than the amount of time, effort, and money, we spent on it, we would pay for it without hesitation. That's part of the problem, isn't it?

Tactics vs Religion

If every fertility clinic in the world knew that a given tactic would bring them more patients, they would all do it. If every fertility center had the exact same marketing strategy, how would patients choose one clinic from another? No one would be able to increase market share. Even though the number of people being treated for infertility is far less than those who need treatment, market share is not infinite. I accept that the reasons that patients decide to schedule their initial consultations are not entirely measurable. The individual attention of walking a patient to her car at the end of a long day, which in turn caused her to be the source of four new patients over the course of her lifetime, is not exactly a measurable marketable tactic. Marketing depends on a combination of religion and tactics. 

I think the use of the word religion is prudent here, because good marketing requires faith, patience, and personal commitment. I spend thousands of dollars, every year, to go to meetings of various infertility societies throughout the United States and Canada. I might spend $1,500 on a conference between the fee, airfare, and lodging, and I can't say that any one conference yields a client who returns my investment in that singular interaction. That's why most people won't do it. I pay the expense of going to the meetings  because being a part of the community benefits me. Multi-millionaire marketer, Gary Vaynerchuk, contends that belonging to a community yields privileges and opportunities that do not come easily to those outside of the community. The value that we bring to the community that we serve may be considered a marketing expense . Still, we can't spend money aimlessly. We have to measure key performance indicators (KPI); numbers that let us know if we are on the right track.

Effort does not equal result

When we don't know how much a marketing effort is returning its investment, we're tempted to measure false metrics. I have been told by fertility centers, more times than I can count, that they have a company that handles their social media. Then I look at their Facebook page to see that no one has liked, commented on, or shared any of their content. We check the box. "Social media: done". We mistake our output for a key performance indicator. We ignore what is really important: the attention of our prospective and current patients, and the decision making process they go through to choose their fertility center.

We measure output like this

  • We aired 100 television commercials
  • We post to Twitter and Facebook everyday.
  • We wrote 20 blog posts.
  • We hired a marketing firm.

What were the results? Did anyone read your blog article? Did anyone see your Facebook post? If they didn't, how are these efforts meant to bring in new patients? If they did, how do we know if anyone took action because of it? Output is relevant only to the result it produces.

Tracking is easier when you have a sales funnel

Fertility centers struggle with measuring their marketing efforts when they don't have a sales funnel. Tech Target defines a sales funnel as the visual representation of how a sale proceeds in a linear fashion from customer awareness to customer action. Let's use a common example for fertility practices. How often do you receive an e-mail or a Facebook message from a prospective patient asking questions about infertility or IVF? You send them a response asking them to call the office to schedule an initial consultation. Maybe they respond saying they will, maybe they don't respond at all. You check after a few months to see how many of those people actually scheduled a consultation. Very few, right?

I used this image from stevepatrizi.com because I liked it the best.

I used this image from stevepatrizi.com because I liked it the best.

Why do so few people actually schedule a consultation relative to the number who are researching us online? We are trying to get them to jump from the very top of the funnel right through the bottom in one drop. That's not how funnels work. Funnels swirl from one ring to the next. I want to do a better job of helping fertility clinics build their sales funnel. Taking exceptional care of your patients matters. People recommending their friends to your clinic results in more patients. I want to be able to better quantify that.

Setting goals and ways to measure them

We need to do a better job of tracking where our patients come from. To start, we need to know our goals so we can align our marketing efforts with out KPIs. Most businesses do a poor job of this. Most medical practices are even worse at it. Fertility centers are no exception. In our case, we can determine our goals with questions like these.

  • How many IVF cycles can each physician perform? IUIs?
  • How many new patient consultations do we average each month?
  • Do we want to hire additional physicians/staff in the future?
  • Do we want to expand our facilities/office locations?
  • How many new patient consults can we see monthly?
  • How many consultations result in IVF? IUI? Other treatment?
  • What are the margins on IVF from a patient who pays out of pocket vs. one who pays from insurance?

Once we have our goals, we can begin to set KPIs. 

  • Are consultations up, month to month? Year to year?
  • What is our average cancellation rate?
  • How many patients do we schedule online? Over the phone?
  • Are cancellations higher or lower for patients scheduling online? By how much?
  • How many patients come to us from MD referrals? The internet? Word of mouth? Other?

Once we've determined what KPIs support our goals, we can implement methods to measure them. There are various ways of doing this, such as purchasing software from Hubspot or Sales Force. Inbound marketing software is extremely helpful for tracking how a prospective patient goes from the awareness stage at the top of the decision funnel all the way through to become an actual patient. The software provides you with data to decide what content to create, to nurture prospective patients to scheduled patients. Even without paying for expensive marketing software, we can do a better job of tracking our goals and indicators. Whether through your patient portal, on a tablet in your office, or a form for patients to complete, we want to ask patients various questions. For our own purposes, we want to be able to answer

  • How did they become aware of us?
  • Why did they decide on our practice?

Frequently, people have a hard time answering these questions when they're phrased like this. Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, says that "we must learn what customers really want. Not what they say they want, or what we think they should want". We need to observe patients' online behavior and ask more specific questions about their choices rather than hypothetical options. 

Please list ALL of the ways you heard about us.

  • If referred by an office
  • If referred by a friend
    • Who?
      • Through social media? Or in person? 
  • Your opinion really helps us provide the best experience for our patients. Would you please describe how you made your decision to choose our practice?

Implement, Measure, Adjust, Repeat

We often ignore the tracking process as marketers because it's cumbersome. First, we have to decide upon our practice goals. Then, we have to set key performance indicators (KPI) to measure those goals. After we've aligned our KPIs with our marketing efforts we need to validate them with detailed patient feedback. It would be imprudent to base our marketing strategy entirely on tactics. Marketing involves a combination of tactics and religion--the faith that an outstanding patient experience results in more patients. In order to prove that exceptional patient attention is an engine for practice growth, we need to measure our KPIs and ask patients for their input. It may mean we have to change some of our marketing efforts or practice style. Once we have a measurable marketing system in place, however, we can efficiently invest resources and sustainably grow the practice. With the adjustments that we make from the feedback we've learned, we can repeat the process for predictable success.