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Will They Find You?

As humans, we tend to like it when things just work. When you open a faucet, you expect water to flow out. When you flick a switch, you expect the corresponding light to illuminate. Although it’s annoying when something is completely broken, it’s often more dangerous when everything seems to be okay – when apparent success obscures problems beneath the surface (for example, tasteless, odorless but nevertheless dangerous chemicals in your water supply).

If a patient in need of eye care searches for an “eye doctor near me” on their search engine, you may assume that they’ll be provided with a list of ophthalmologists in their local vicinity, but is this true? And, if not, what information are they receiving, and what are the potential dangers?

To answer these questions, we spoke with Rebecca Soares, lead author of “A Geographic Analysis of Google Characterizations of Who Is an ‘Eye Doctor’ Across the US.”

What prompted this research?
 

A challenge that I have faced throughout my training and career is how to clearly convey my role as a retina specialist and ophthalmologist to my patients. I feel so privileged to practice in this field. As ophthalmologists, we are in the position of using our minds and hands to better the quality of life of our patients. Nevertheless, we are highly specialized and subspecialized. The years of clinical and surgical training that we undertake place us at the cutting edge of treatment in eye care. However, the depth of our training may also make the nuances of our profession more obscure to the public. Patients are often surprised when I tell them that I am a surgeon or that I went to medical school. They sometimes refer to me as an optometrist or are frustrated when I explain that I do not prescribe contact lenses. Clarifying the distinctions between types of eye doctors is critical to ensuring efficient and appropriate care.

As scope of practice continues to be a hotly contested subject in many states, ensuring ophthalmologists are equitably represented is imperative. A good gauge of how the public perceives ophthalmologists and optometrists is by looking at internet search patterns, as we do in this study using the Google search engine.

Could you briefly explain your study and your findings?
 

We wanted to better understand if ophthalmologists are well-represented as eye doctors to the public. To do this, as a proxy for public perception, we used a Google search engine interface to search the phrase “eye doctor near me” from the centroid of every county in the US. From the top ten search results on Google and the top three Google map results, we determined the proportion of ophthalmologists within this cohort, and compared this proportion to the true proportion of ophthalmologists based on Medicare data. We found that ophthalmologists were underrepresented as compared with optometrists in 35 of 52 states and territories (1). These results indicate that search engines like Google potentially undervalue ophthalmologists as eye doctors.

Why do ophthalmologists need to pay attention to these results?
 

It is imperative that ophthalmologists know that they have a tendency to be undervalued by internet search – and potentially undervalued in public perception. If ophthalmologists continue to miss out on search engine and social media optimization, the whole field is at risk of erosion of scope. When we underutilize internet search and social media, we limit practice marketability and, most importantly, patient access to care. On a larger scale, ophthalmologists must continue to advocate for appropriate and safe surgical and clinical care at a state and federal policy level. Efforts to maintain appropriate scope of practice are facilitated by public perception and support, which in turn can be improved through search engine optimization.

If SEO is at the heart of the problem, what can ophthalmologists do?
 

It is critical that all ophthalmologists practice SEO for both improved practice marketability and for the field as a whole. There are many ways practices can pursue SEO, ranging from targeted website building to hiring a consulting firm. A good first step might be taking a look at the recommendations from the American Academy of Ophthalmology on search engine optimization (2). Among other tips, they recommend making a list of important, searchable words, and getting other websites to link to the practice website. Unfortunately, given the algorithmic nature of Google and other search engines, the onus is on us as ophthalmologists to make our name on the internet.

Where will this line of research take you next?
 

I would love to use this current study to build structural support for SEO at the organizational level. Creating a network of practices that link to each other’s websites could allow for much greater visibility at the search engine level. In terms of future research, I hope to continue to look into how ophthalmologists are portrayed in the public eye – and to evaluate patient access to care across the United States.

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  1.  RR Soares et al., JAMA Ophthalmol, 140, 1174 (2022). PMID: 36264555.
  2. American Academy of Ophthalmology, “Optimizing Your Ophthalmology Practice’s Website to Show Up in Search Results,” (2023). Available at: https://bit.ly/3qgvoA0
About the Author
Oscelle Boye

Associate Editor, The Ophthalmologist

I have always been fascinated by stories. During my biomedical sciences degree, though I enjoyed wet lab sessions, I was truly in my element when sitting down to write up my results and find the stories within the data. Working at Texere gives me the opportunity to delve into a plethora of interesting stories, sharing them with a wide audience as I go.

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