Today I dug further into the Healthgrades/hospital listing hijacking issue.  I tested the phone numbers for two of the practices we’ve worked with on listings, one in Southern California and one in Northern California; both of these practices have had their listings heavily branded by local hospitals (without consent or even notification from the hospital or Healthgrades to the practice).  In both cases, the practice’s phone number was replaced with a referral line number.  My experiences testing these numbers out illustrates why it is so problematic for the practices and so wrong for it to have been done without their consent.

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Test #1 — SoCal

Dial number … recorded greeting, “please hold for the next available agent”  [AGENT?]

Operator:  Hello?  How can I help you? [Not even the lame, generic “doctor’s office” you usually get with an answering service]

Me:  Oh…er…I thought I was calling my doctor’s office?

Operator:  Oh, I’ll have to transfer you. Are you an existing patient?

Yes:  Okay, please SPELL your doctor’s last name, so I can make sure I transfer you to the right place  [Spell?  Really?  Didn’t I just call his office?]

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Test #2 — NorCal

Dial number … same recorded greeting, “please hold for the next available agent.”  Hold for 25 seconds.

Operator:  Hello, can I help you?  [Again, not even an indication you’re calling a doctor.]

Me:  Oh, whom have I reached?

Operator:  Um, you’ve reached a call center for XXXXX Health.  [That’s the hospital system]

Me:  Oh, I thought I was calling a doctor’s office?

Operator:  Oh, um, XXXXX Health is using us to verify patient information — can I update your information?  [Really?  How do you know I’m a XXXXX patient?]

Me:  So, I haven’t reached the doctor’s office.  I’ve reached someone from XXXXX Health?

Operator:  Well, XXXXX Health has us gathering patient information and tracking calls from HealthGrades.

Operator:  So, are you concerned about this?  We’ve been getting a lot of complaints.  [Wow!  That was fast.  I didn’t think I’d indicated a complaint yet. They really must be getting a fair number.]

Operator:  I can pass your information on to my supervisor if you’re concerned.

Me:  So, is this Healthgrades setting up these numbers or is XXXXX Health?

Operator:  Well, my supervisor really should answer that, I’m new here.

Me:  Are you located here in Northern California?

Operator:  No, we’re national.

Me:  So, you’re answering for a number of different health systems.

Operator:  That’s right.  Are you calling from a doctor’s office, then?  I know people have had a lot of concerns.  Would it be best for you to speak with my supervisor?  They can call or email you.

Me:  Yes, that would be great. [I disclosed that I’m a consultant who has worked with a number of practices on listings.]

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So, where to begin with the issues with this diverting of calls!

  1. The patient thinks they’re calling a doctor’s office.  They get a message to “hold for an agent” (and they’re thinking, HUH? am I dialing the right number?), then the phone is answered by someone clearly without any medical office training, and no apparent interest in acknowledging to the patient that they’ve reached someone who can connect them to their doctor.  This reflects badly on the practice — and they had no control over it and nothing to do with it!  Private practices stand out in a positive way by being more personal and accessible than the typical medical bureaucracy.  This phone answering is WORSE than even the typical overnight answering service.
  2. Please spell your doctor’s name?  Are you kidding?  What if they connect the patient with the wrong doctor?
  3. In both cases, I called the default number offered to patients on HG for the practices, which happens to be the “new patient” number*.  Why is XXXXX Health demanding personal health information from patients who dial into a call center trying to reach a particular doctor?  What if that doctor wants nothing to do with XXXXX Health, and just intends to see Dr. Y under their own insurance plan for an office visit?
  4. Assuming #3 invites all kinds of privacy violations, who is liable?  (Even if the practice is not liable, naturally, this stains their brand again — and they had nothing to do with it!)
  5. Above all, this hassle for patients, this confusing, unprofessional and potentially HIPAA breaching annoying experience, reflects badly on the practices involved and they had NO CHOICE in the matter.

Regarding the last point, can you imagine ANY other business in which someone would think it okay for an organization affiliated with a business to just reroute that other business’s calls to their call center to gather their customers’ personal information?

If I receive a call or email from the ‘supervisor’ at the call center, I will be sure to post the details of the interaction here.  More as it comes in ….

*In the case of one doctor, I did see that the correct direct line was retained under an extra ‘existing patient’ link — however, it is unlikely any patient would ever get there, since the call center number is splashed in multiple instances all over the main page — presumably deliberately to drive most patients to that number.

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2 Response Comments

  • Cheryl Bisera  March 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    One of my clients had his Healthgrades listing hijacked by a hospital that he’s on staff with that isn’t his primary hospital which is near to his office. I did a test call and the call center was very quick and professional but they also asked for my full name, address, insurance, and then told me the physician I was calling for didn’t take my insurance and offered to refer me to another physician of that specialty (on staff at their hospital of course, which in not close to my address). What I find most disturbing about this is that the physician’s HG site is a representation of their business, HG allowing a hospital’s “sponsorship” of these listings in exchange for higher ranking allows allows the hospital to change content without physician-owner consent (some hospitals in my area have sent out notices via email, snail mail and fax but notifying is NOT obtaining consent). This creates a lack of control over customer service, tracking (for instance, if there is an influx of potential patients calling inquiring about an insurance the physician isn’t currently contracted with, the physician and manager can make future contracting decisions with this in mind), another physician ends up reaping the benefits of the call which may have been obtained through marketing efforts of the physician who the patient sought out originally – who also has no control over where to send that potential patient nor an opportunity to discuss seeing them out of network. Surely there are some serious legal and ethical issues here.

    • Laurie Morgan  March 8, 2013 at 5:22 pm

      Very good points — thanks for weighing in with your experience. Agree that there are serious ethical and, potentially, legal issues.

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