Timing Is Everything

David S. BrooksDavid S. Brooks

With Internet search engines available every hour of every day, patients are able to look for doctors 24-7. But are you able to respond when they need you?

The study
To learn a little more about how and when patients use search engines to find a doctor, we recently analyzed 17,253 searches from popular search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo that led patients to the Doctor.com platform. We specifically looked at queries that included words like “need”, “want” and “find”.

We think the insights gained can be useful for practice owners and managers in thinking about office hours and off-hours communications. The findings also have implications for practice marketing consultants who wish to better take advantage of online ad schedules.

The findings
It is no surprise that 2/3 of search requests are made during “normal business hours”, between 9 am and 5 pm. However, a not-so-insignificant 1/3 of patients are looking for a doctor during “off hours.” The majority of these are searching from 5 pm to 9 pm, during normal waking hours but outside of common business hours. It should also be noted, though, that a good deal of search activity occurs well into the night. Illness, after all, does not often present itself at convenient times.

1. Search distribution throughout the week
One of the most interesting aspects of analyzing patient search behavior is determining whether “demand” has any predictable or unusual patterns. For example, it was found that patients are most likely to try and find a doctor on Monday, with search volume declining steadily throughout the week.

doctor searches by day of week

Providers and patients, then, have good reason to dread Mondays: it appears to be the busiest day for trying to find a doctor and is likely to present difficulties as offices try to fit in a large number of new patients, especially if they are also responding to those who may have searched over the weekend.

2. Search distribution throughout the day
Searches during weekdays tend to follow predictable patterns, with common working hours being the busiest. But did you know that patients are also quite actively searching for doctors on weekends as well? In fact, Saturday and Sunday mornings and late Sunday night are some of the most high-traffic times of the week.

The chart below shows color bands that represent the searches that occur each day, reflecting the percentage performed during certain hours. The thickness of the layers represents the relative frequency of doctor searches.

doctor searches by day part

3. The availability gap
On the Doctor.com platform, we are able to analyze provider office hours as compared to patient search behavior. For the most part, these neatly coincide. However, the need for "off-hours" providers (during evening hours between work and bedtime) is clear and acute.

While most provider offices are open during “normal” business hours, a surprising number are not able to be responsive during hours when large numbers of people are searching for a doctor.

The table below shows the ratio, by percentage, of patients searching for doctors against practices actually open during the time of the search. A score of 1.0 or less means that search volumes are about average with offices being open. Areas of red or orange means that there are more offices open than searches.

A score of 2.0 or more (Yellow and green areas) represent times of greatest opportunity, when more patients are searching but fewer providers have office hours.

As you can see, on weekday nights between 10 pm and 12 am, there are relatively large numbers of people searching for care providers and comparatively few providers open to respond. Note also the opportunity of increased demand on Sunday evenings, when few, if any, providers have office hours yet a rather significant percentage of searches are taking place.

The implications
1) An “off-hour” search may imply that a patient is suffering from an ailment that, while less than emergent, cannot wait until morning. Being available to serve these patients sends a powerful signal…they know that they can get help from their doctor when they need it rather than having to wait until whatever time may be most convenient for the provider.

2) Off-hour searches can also suggest that a patient has a non-standard schedule or is unable to see to their medical care needs during common working hours. If your practice also has non-standard hours, this represents a significant convenience factor to the patient. Be sure to highlight this availability to patients who don’t necessarily work 9-5 or cannot leave work during those times.

3) Fewer than 20 percent of practices listed on Doctor.com have office hours after 7:00 pm and only 1 percent have office hours after 9:00 pm. Analyzing patient search behavior, this “availability gap” suggests a very large, untapped new-patient opportunity for practices willing to offer late-night phone or office support.

The opportunities
1) Office hours during non-standard times can be an important competitive advantage. If you do have night or weekend hours, be sure to highlight your practice’s availability in your advertising, on your website, even in your email signature. Let other patients know as well, to increase referrals from friends and family. From our research, it is a unique differentiator. Although the volumes of patients searching is lower, the available pool of doctors with office hours is very small. If you’re open, you’ll benefit by default from the favorable supply-demand equation.

2) Even if your office is closed, but you remain "on-call" during the crucial evening hours of 5 pm – 9 pm, you will likely be rewarded by grateful patients who want to speak to a caring professional right away. Consider an investment in an after-hours answering service to pre-screen calls if the calls are a nuisance.

3) Be sure to adjust your voice mail ring times when you are closed. The shorter the better to capture the caller’s information. Every ring (7 seconds) means about 10 percent of callers give up in frustration without even leaving a message.

4) With Google AdWords, is it possible to target ad campaigns to specific times of day. As part of our new Patient Lead Program, Doctor.com does just that, automatically adjusting ad “bids” to reflect your office hours as well as overall patient demand.

5) If you do not have a provider on-call service during evenings and weekends, consider an answering machine message that directs the patient to take some sort of action beyond simply leaving a message, perhaps visiting a website or a dedicated appointment request page. Monitor these patient submissions even in “off” hours and reply as soon as possible to let the patient know when they can see a provider.

6) If a patient does leave a phone message, return the call as quickly as possible, even if the case is non-emergent. Such “confirmation” phone calls have two powerful effects:

  • They signal to the patient that your staff is attentive and caring—even if a phone call is not urgent, the patient is made to feel important and special.
  • The sooner you confirm an appointment with a patient, the less likely that patient will be to try and find another provider. In a strategic sense, your confirming call locks the patient in to your practice.

As the saying goes, "Timing is everything." To help capture and convert new patients, a successful practice must be sensitive to patients’ off-hour needs, then develop a response plan. Although working evenings, early mornings and weekends is not everyone’s dream job, the search traffic data suggests there are more than enough patients willing to reward your sacrifice.

David S. Brooks is Vice President, Client Services for Doctor.com, a leading web-based directory for patients to find qualified healthcare professionals. Doctor.com offers free- and paid-listing services for healthcare providers including custom websites, search engine visibility services, and appointment request/reminder systems.

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