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Astroturfing in healthcare

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Astroturfing in healthcare

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It’s widely believed that our fellow consumer is often the most influential voice when it comes to our purchasing decisions.  This influence has led to user reviews becoming increasingly important for suppliers of all manner of services.  Alas, as the importance of reviews has grown, so too has the temptation to fake those reviews.  It’s a process known as astroturfing and it’s an industry already worth many millions of pounds.

Of course, the collation of reviews by professional fakers is no doubt the tip of the iceberg, with many more fake reviews submitted by the supplier themselves.  A salient story from the National Health Service emphasises this all too clearly.

A BBC report into the reviews left on the NHS Choices website found that 49% of the reviews left on the Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust profile were submitted from staff computers.  The trust defended themselves by claiming that the reviews were posted onto the Patient Opinion website, before then being syndicated onto NHS Choices.  The trust claim that the reviews submitted to Patient Opinion were done on behalf of patients, hence why they were posted from Trust computers.

Amidst the furore, Patient Opinion themselves defended their role in the situation, claiming that their service doesn’t exist to provide Trip Advisor style ratings but rather to help the NHS improve the quality of its service.

Of course, it’s not all bad news.  A recent study exploring reviews in the US found that reviews broadly correlated with the actual performance of clinicians.  A second study was less optimistic however, with transparency a major area of concern.

“My personal opinion is that it is difficult to trust the sites partly because of a lack of transparency about who is leaving the ratings,” researchers said.

Whilst many other industries have experienced severe challenges managing this problem, it is undoubtedly more serious in the healthcare industry, where decisions can literally mean life or death.  It’s far from clear that Nottinghamshire Trust have been doing anything as nefarious as astroturfing, but it’s also clear that much more needs to be done to improve the transparency of such services so that patients can trust what they’re reading.

Feedback is so very important, both to end users but also to service providers, so it’s crucial that these kind of negative stories don’t put people off of using (nor offering) them.  The healthcare industry will need to follow closely however moves made by other industries that are perhaps further along in their use of customer reviews to ensure that patients can have faith in the validity of the reviews left.

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