Spectrum Health’s new “Find a Doctor” website tool aspires to do far more than help our patients figure out where their next clinic visit will be — it is designed to improve access, transparency and even care itself.

Patients once relied on recommendations from family and friends to find health care providers. Now, our Google analytics tell us 70 to 80 percent of patients start online to search for a new doctor. Nearly 60 percent say online ratings are important in selecting a physician. To simply connect with new patients, we could have taken an easier path. But building this tool was a priority for us. We undertook this major initiative across our system as a way to improve access and transparency, encourage patient-centered care, transform the model of care and improve patient outcomes.

Find a Doc is part of our strategy to provide key information to our community as a whole, not just to the patients who walk through our doors. 

The service offers searchable, relevant, accurate and up-to-date information. Searchers can sort by specific services, health insurance and location, even by gender. To identify a good match, they can explore each physician’s training, specialties, background, interests and, in some cases, view a short video interview.

After a visit, patients are asked to review their experience and rate their provider via a Press Ganey performance evaluation. After authenticating and screening comments for potential legal, ethical and privacy issues, we post them – positive or negative – on our site for all to see.  Spectrum Health is one of if not the nation’s first health system to display online ratings and reviews for services such as urgent care, laboratory and radiology, and to offer searchable insurance.

Since the tool’s launch in mid-2016, comments and ratings from 90,000 patients have been posted. Searches for our services have grown exponentially; for example, website hits for “urgent care” rocketed from 26 in August to 924 in October. Find a Doctor already accounts for more than half of Spectrum Health’s overall internet traffic.

Some critics doubt improving patient satisfaction leads to better outcomes. They argue it’s hard to correlate subjective patient experience ratings with rigorous quality measurements and that resources used to improve patient experience would be better spent on improving care. But recent studies show improving patient experience is correlated with better health care outcomes and quality of care. For instance, U.S. hospitals with high patient satisfaction were shown to provide more efficient, higher quality surgical care.

Has Find a Doctor improved the patient experience at Spectrum Health or led to improved doctor-patient relationships? There is less than a year of data to analyze, but there are promising signs.

In addition to publicly posted surveys as motivation for doctors to improve the care they provide, we offer classes or coaching. For example, patient surveys indicated one doctor often interrupted his patients or typed while they talked. Through coaching, the doctor now sits down, listens and shows compassion. Coaching has improved our doctors’ patient satisfaction scores by 5 to 10 percent. We add further incentive by tying doctors’ compensation to patient satisfaction scores.

Patient-centered care is a long-held priority at Spectrum Health, as evidenced by our 18 patient and family advisory councils. More than 150 patient and family advisors helped us develop the new tool.  Patient feedback helped us rework our laboratory services, where patient satisfaction scores at pilot sites are now among the best in the country. In the end, Find a Doctor is far more than a shiny new Web tool – it is a critical initiative carefully designed to improve access, transparency and, ultimately, patient care.

Christina M. Freese Decker is president of Spectrum Health Hospital Group in Grand Rapids, Mich.