Hospitals annoyed by bad search info

'Our CEO's private office number was listed as our main number. All of sudden his phone is ringing off the hook.'
By Mike Miliard
10:59 AM
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Hospitals annoyed by bad search info

Here's a question you may be surprised to hear many healthcare providers often find themselves asking: "Why can't people look up my hospital's name?"

That's Ed Bennett, director of Web and communications technology at The University of Maryland Medical System and all-around healthcare social media guru. He's voicing a common frustration for many of his colleagues across the industry: Google often offers incorrect contact information for hospitals. Its wrong search results can lead to inconvenience and – at least potentially – adverse health effects.

Worse, correcting the problem is a major challenge – for some large and complicated health networks, it's an expensive, ongoing, nearly full-time job.

"Google is providing bad information in search results," says Bennett. "And it's impossible to get it fixed."

Hospitals are frustrated – lots of them, based on the number of people who wanted to speak to us about the problem.

Many, the ones who can afford it, have hired outside consultants to deal with rectifying the situation. Others simply muddle through, trying to get the right information to appear in Google's famous algorithms as best they can.

"The fundamental issue here is Google's business model: Automate everything," says Bennett. "There is no customer service. There is no one to call. They automate everything."

The existing solution to rectify bad contact info is complicated and, hospital administrators argue, completely unsuited to the realities of a large health network. If a hospital sees that its search data is wrong, Google offers two ways to verify and claim its status and provide the correct information.

First, one can enter the correct phone listing, after which an automated call will ring those digits with a security code to verify the claim.

The other option is that Google will mail a postcard to the address in question, stamped with a similar a security code. Upon retrieving it, organizations can log onto Google Places and claim their correct info.

The notion of a revolutionary technology firm like Google sending hospitals – who themselves are working feverishly to embrace digitization and move away from paper – postcards through the U.S. Postal Service? It's ironic, let's just say.

"These processes work fine if you're running a dry cleaner," says Bennett. "They do not work if you're managing 100 physical locations with 50 different location names."

Google offered a statement to Healthcare IT News noting that the business listings on Google and Google Maps "come from a combination of sources such as third-party and publicly available directories and business information from our Web search results."

While the company recognizes that, "with millions of listings, there may be an occasional error," it pointed out that "anyone can edit and contribute business information to Google to help keep these listing up-to-date."

The problem is they make the process of doing so onerous enough that many providers find themselves at a loss.

Bennett considers himself lucky that at one point UMMS was able to "beg and plead and cajole" enough that, "after months we finally got a person we could call or email. That person would find out what the different touch points were inside Google and try to straighten it out."

That worked fine for about a year. Then that person left. "Their email didn't work anymore. We didn't have anybody and we had to go through the whole process again," says Bennett.

"We're pretty sophisticated with the Web office here," he adds. "I can't image what it's like for a small community hospital."

The headaches cause by bad search results have not been inconsequential.

Bennett refers to one snafu "where our CEO's private office number was listed as our main number. All of sudden his phone is ringing off the hook from people thinking they're calling the hospital."

At other facilities, "I've heard anecdotally about people trying to reach chemotherapy centers and were given the wrong address and the wrong phone numbers," he says.

"The problem isn't so much that there's bad information," says Bennett. "That's inevitable. The problem is there is no easy way for us to go in and fix it."

But that's Google's way, he says. "They do the best they can with a totally automated system. If you don't like it, it's a free service – you don't need to use it. That's pretty much their attitude for everything from email to search engine results."

Of course, Google has so ingrained itself into daily life that it's become the default way to find information for millions of Americans. When they search for a local hospital, they assume what pops up will be correct. But that's not always the case.

"My healthcare system has several campuses, and we recently went through a name change," says Alex Panagiotopoulos, marketing writer at HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley in New York. "On an ongoing basis I have to go and claim these Google places" to ensure the contact info is current.

"It's very slow and frustrating," he says. "It just feels kind of antiquated. My concern is that there are not enough human beings who are in charge."

"It's a reoccurring problem that's been going on for several years now," says Tim Brennan, public affairs and communications manager at Boston-based Tufts Medical Center. "We have a central mail room. Google isn't really taking into account that there are various phone numbers for various functions and services. When we get a slip in the mail to verify it, it's not going to the correct service line. Or it gets lost."

For help, Tufts reached out to a search engine optimization firm to investigate. The company's response: "We tried to do everything via phone and just really got nowhere."

"It's not just an inconvenience, it's also an expense," says Brennan.

Cynthia Newton is president of Mooresville, N.C. HCCG, Inc., a consulting firm that does lots of work on this front for various hospitals. She feels their pain, she says. "My clients pay me to deal with their frustration."

With potentially hundreds of phone numbers within a given health system, "It can be quite tedious to make sure they'e correct," says Newton. "Most hospitals are on phone trees. They're huge entities … nine times out of 10, you won't get that piece of mail.

"If you have 300 employed physicians that you need to claim their profiles on, and those physicians are at 25 different locations," she adds. "You're never going to get all those pieces of information."

Newton tells of one member of a local school department who was subject to a flood of misdirected phone calls.

"She would come in the morning and her voicemail would be full. People were calling thinking they've reached the hospital, and leaving personal health information."

Turns out that "many years ago the hospital used to be in the physical building where the school department is," says Newton. "It took literally four months for us to get that removed, working on it constantly."

"Google needs to take a closer look at the tools they are giving us to deal with this," says Jeremy Harrison, program supervisor, Web service at MultiCare Health System, in the Puget Sound area of Washington.

"For hospitals and emergency rooms, I feel like they need to give us more of a leg up than, say, Jack-in-the-Box, or some other kind of business," he says. "Public health is involved. And that information needs to be accurate and quickly available."

[See also: New iPhone 5 maps failing healthcare seekers]