Finding a Doctor is Like Online Dating

HealthSparq’s recent research whitepaper “A Provider Like Me: Research Into Preferences, Care Selection, and Bias in Healthcare” highlighted how people tend to look for healthcare providers who reflect who they are and what they value. This finding is an important one for those of us in healthcare hoping to build trust, improve outcomes, and engage with individuals to take control of their healthcare. It is also a finding that echoes what we have found in our qualitative user research program: that searching for a provider is a lot like online dating.

Online dating is a useful corollary for selecting care because at the core of each experience is vulnerability and a kind of intimacy. When searching for someone you will spend time with, make decisions with, and share private details of your life with, it is not enough to just know their name (and if they take your insurance!). To make a connection that can change and (hopefully) better your life, you need more data, full details.

When people swipe through the profiles on a dating app, they have an idea of who they are looking for. They are seeking someone they can trust, who will understand them, and will care about their future. People use all kinds of data and cues to suss out who might be a good risk. They use photos, age, education, a bio that includes their interests and values, jobs, and goals. In using this baseline data, they look for a match with their own needs, priorities, background, and goals.

The idea of matching, in both dating and selecting a clinician, is rooted in psychological safety. People are concerned about bias. Being slighted or turned away during the vulnerable time of seeking and receiving care has real consequences. In our research, we found that 15% of the respondents say they have encountered discrimination while looking for or receiving healthcare. People are significantly more likely worry about or have experienced discrimination in healthcare who identify as being part of the LGTBQ community or an ethnic group other than Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, or Asian.[1] Safety is not a given. When making choices with limited information, and especially when vulnerable, we use our experiences to guide us away from risk. Shared background, gender, or language can signal that someone is more likely to react positively toward us. While this shared-identity strategy has drawbacks and can introduce bias, it can feel like higher risk to go against our built-in similarity-as-safety guideline.

Supporting a match that reinforces feelings of security and respect requires rich, detailed and accurate information. Clinicians have dimensions of data beyond just their specialty and if they are accepting new patients and are eager to be well represented to potential patients. Patients are looking for insight about who their clinicians are as people, and what they believe and value, in addition to their experience and expertise. Sourcing photos, biographies, philosophy of care, in addition to practice details, enables HealthSparq to bring a greater sense of confidence to the potentially risky process of picking a doctor. In the future, we are exploring ways to bring better information, especially to support marginalized communities, to our tools and bring more options to dial in your best match recommendations.

As we look to deepen our expertise in matching patients with their best clinician, online dating has lessons for us. By focusing on the safety of our users, listening to their needs, actively seeking guidance from communities both outside and inside health care, we seek to improve trust, in our tools, in our data, and in the health care community itself. To read the research, click here.

[1] A Provider Like Me: Research Into Preferences, Care Selection, and Bias in Healthcare. HealthSparq, June 2021