The Usability Blog
A Practical Guide to User Experience Insights

Finding a Healthcare Provider

Part 1: Searching for a Doctor or Medical Provider

Now that more Americans are covered by medical insurance, it’s likely many will visit their selected medical plan’s website to look for a doctor. Recently we looked at the public version of “Find a Doctor/Provider” functions on several medical insurance sites, and found that the options are a little different on each. All plans try to help users narrow the possible results by asking for some basic information:

  • What type of doctor/provider do you need?
  • Where are you located, and how far are you willing to travel?
  • What type of plan do you have? (This information limits the search results to just the providers who participate in your network, for the lowest cost to you.)

Finding a specific type of provider

Most health insurance sites provide a list of provider types, such as primary care doctors and specialists, and facilities such as hospitals, clinics and labs. The type may be selected from a list of links or a drop-down list. After selecting a “Specialist” in a drop-down list, for example, users can narrow the choices further by selecting from a specialty list. This is where the search can become confusing for users, who may be unfamiliar with the terms used in the medical field. If a user has back pain that might require surgery, should she select “back surgeon” or an “orthopedic surgeon?” Or, if she needs to have a colonoscopy or a lump removed from her breast, which type of doctor performs this procedure? In some cases, users may know the name of the specialty they need, and can easily find it in a list. However, on sites that provide a search box, users who are not sure how to spell a specialty correctly may not find what they need (for example, “orthopedist,” “podiatrist” or “ophthalmologist”). Sites can avoid “zero results” error messages by providing smart search features, such as auto-complete suggestions that display as the user types, and auto-correction of spelling (see figure below of United Healthcare site).

United Healthcare’s auto-complete suggestions

Some sites provide a way to narrow the search even further by adding a sub-specialty selection after a specialty is selected. On the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas (BCBSTX) site, there is a drop-down list for “Treatment Expertise/Limitations.” However, if a user searching for a surgeon to remove a lump in her breast selected “Practices Includes Breast Disease,” this selection would return zero results, since it is not always listed as an expertise, even for some surgeons whose practice include breast disease.

The provider “Treatment Expertise/Limitations” drop-down menu on the BCBSTX site

Other health insurance plans use a different approach that can make the search for a provider easier. On the Aetna site, the “Find a Provider” page initially narrows the search by providing a list of links for “By Provider Type,” “By Condition or “By Procedure.” Under “By Procedure,” the link for “Breast Care” leads to a pop-up list with several options: “Breast Biopsy,” “Lump Removal,” “Mammogram” and “Mastectomy.”

Aetna’s list of links and procedure type pop up list for “Breast Care”

Another solution to assist users is to display definitions for medical terms. The Healthgrades site (which provides consumer ratings and profiles of healthcare providers and facilities) features a panel containing a detailed definition of the specialty that slides out to the right after mousing over the list of specialty links. This helps users to make the correct selection prior to clicking on a link.

Healthgrades’ smart search and fly-out definitions

Our review of these 3 insurer sites demonstrates how the ideal provider search can save users’ time and effort, with multiple options to target their searches.

Best Practices

Some best practices for doctor or medical provider search features:

  • Give users multiple methods for searching for a provider, such as a keyword list, a set of drop-down lists for specialties and sub-specialties and smart search with auto-complete and auto-correct capabilities.
  • Provide multiple methods for narrowing the search: by provider type and specialty, as well as by procedure or condition, distance from a location and language spoken and whether the provider is accepting new patients.
  • Provide definitions for medical terms and abbreviations of procedures and conditions in ToolTip pop-ups (which appear when users click on an information icon) or fly-out panels similar to the Healthgrades site.

In the next 2 installments, we will cover best practices for search results and provider information.

-Judy Kistler-Robinson, Senior User Experience Specialist, Usability Sciences 

-Linda Hwang, Senior User Experience Analyst, Usability Sciences


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