I don’t like to think of myself as just a demographic. However, as a 43-year-old mother of five, I can’t help but identify with a famous trope in healthcare: women as the “Chief Medical Officers” of their households.
If you’re a woman, perhaps you can relate. We’re the healthcare gatekeepers for our families: 92% of us assist our loved ones with navigating care; 80% of household care decisions happen on our say-so. And research suggests that when we make these decisions for our loved ones, we rely heavily on social media to guide us.
As a professional in the industry, I understood all of this intellectually. But it took two overlapping health episodes to make me feel, on a visceral level, why we household Chief Medical Officers depend on social media to navigate our healthcare choices.
Where We Turn in a Crisis
The crisis began with a close friend’s devastating diagnosis. Just a year ago, before she got sick, we were skiing buddies. At 58, she was impossibly athletic, and she’d sailed past me on black-diamond courses without breaking a sweat. It was inconceivable that she’d ever become ill—until, of course, she did.
A week before Christmas, she learned that she had been diagnosed with inoperable, Stage IV soft-tissue carcinoma in her lungs. The prognosis was bleak. Stunned and scared for her, I wanted to lend a hand. The least I could do would be to help her find the best doctor she could.
I believed I was well equipped for this. My work puts me in contact with dozens of health systems on a regular basis, which meant I knew many knowledgeable professionals whom I could have called for a recommendation.
But I didn’t use those contacts at all. Instead, I started my search like over 80% of all healthcare consumers: online. In the heat of the moment, when I desperately wanted my friend to be in good hands, I felt compelled to turn to Google, Facebook, and star ratings on provider websites for validation.
Unfortunately, another panicked healthcare search experience would follow shortly thereafter when I got a phone call from my college-aged son. “Mom,” he told me, “I’m lying on the floor and I can’t get up.”
That frightened me. At the risk of sounding boastful, I can say that my son’s a very robust young man. A tri-sport athlete in high school, he once played through a serious bout of pneumonia, over my protests. If a health problem had literally floored him, I knew it must be serious.
My first instinct was to send him to the emergency room. After consulting with my sister, a medical professor at the nearest hospital, I learned that the ER had a serious backlog, and wouldn’t be able to see my son for four hours. My brother-in-law, a doctor, suggested urgent care.
So once again, I found myself (somewhat frantically) trawling through Google search results, trying to find a high-quality urgent-care clinic that could see him right away. My sister and brother-in-law pitched in as well—not by speaking with their colleagues, but by scanning Google results for top doctors in the area.
The reviews, provider websites and patient comments we found pointed the way to a nearby urgent-care provider, to whom I felt comfortable bringing my son. We got him an appointment, and learned that he had an extremely severe case of mono. A few weeks of bed rest later, and he was well again. Sadly, I never received a survey to compliment the amazing caring staff that took care of my son and his frantic mother. I did leave my reviews where I could, however, and raved to all who would listen on Facebook.
I wish I could say the same in conclusion to my friend’s fight with cancer. Despite our best efforts to secure her care, the insurmountable diagnosis ultimately claimed her life. Her voice lives on through her eternal comments left on social media, giving credit to the care she received throughout her journey.
The Emotional Pull of Stars
These are just two instances of how I—a relatively sophisticated and health-literate consumer—found star ratings on social media and provider websites irresistible when I needed help finding a provider. I’m certain that similar experiences happen thousands of times a day, all over the country. (In fact, there’s data to prove it: "Patient Ratings/Reviews" contain the most important information needed on a hospital website, according to the 2016 National Healthcare Consumer Study by NRC Health Market Insights.)
I believe that’s because of the unique frame of mind that a health crisis imposes on us. Such times can be frightening and extremely stressful, leaving us hungry for guidance, validation, and certainty. While no one can guarantee results in healthcare, I believe that we find comfort in the wisdom of the crowd.
Health systems looking to attract adult women, the gatekeepers of care for their families, should take note. Your online presence matters, a lot. And in cultivating it, you’ll be well served by giving your patients a voice, and by being transparent with what they have to say.
The more reviews accumulate, on your own website and elsewhere, the more information patients will have to help them with their care decisions. In moments of crisis, that information makes all the difference in the world—especially for “Chief Medical Officers” like me.
Cally Ideus is a combat veteran and international human intelligence scholar, and currently serves as a business development manager for NRC Health. In her role, Cally helps healthcare providers thrive in a consumer-driven economy by providing holistic customer intelligence essential to designing and delivering care experiences that surprise, delight, and inspire loyalty.
Her passions run deep for faith, family and justice. This is one of the reasons she speaks on multiple veteran and human intelligence subjects, but her favorite is “Battle ground on the home front” a story of survival after returning home. Cally lives in Nebraska on a ranch with her husband Jerod and sons Dalton, Quintin, Collin, Garret, and Mason. Her life wouldn’t be complete without the unconditional love of her two dogs, Daisy and Ziba.