May 25, 2021 • By Keith Giles
There was a time not so long ago when people seeking medical diagnosis and treatment had to make an appointment and travel several miles to see a doctor face-to-face in their office building. Those days are quickly fading, as technological advancements have made online video conferences with doctors a practical reality. Hospitals and private practices are adopting new e-healthcare platforms and tele-medicine apps to facilitate more convenient options to serve their patients. But what impact do these new technologies have on a doctor’s in-person or offline practice?
These are the questions that doctoral candidate Haonan Yin PhD ’25 of the UCI Paul Merage School of Business, set out to answer in a recent study conducted with co-authors Ni Huang of the University of Houston C.T. Bauer College of Business and Zhijun Yan of the School of Management and Economics at Beijing Institute of Technology. Their article, “Effects of Online-Offline Service Integration on e-Healthcare Providers: A Quasi-Natural Experiment,” was recently published in Production and Operations Management.
“We wanted to ask two main questions,” says Yin. “First, how do these e-healthcare platforms affect demand for doctors in different channels, online and offline? And second, how does participation in these platforms impact the doctor’s social reputation?”
To answer these questions, Yin and her team leveraged one prominent online healthcare platform in China. “We collected panel data from over 32,000 e-healthcare providers over an eight-month timeframe,” says Yin. Specifically, they measured the number of online consultations and in-person doctor visits and took note of how participation on this platform impacted the social reputations of doctors.
“These e-healthcare platforms allow patients to rate and review their physicians, much like Yelp or eBay do, which creates an accountability system where doctors are given scores depending on patient feedback,” says Yin. “They can also give a gift to their physician if they choose to. The value of the gift represents patient satisfaction.”
After examining the data, Yin and her team concluded that online/offline service integration actually increased the number of consultations overall. However, the number of in-person visits decreased. “This decrease in offline demand is potentially due to the improved integration of a patient’s medical records,” Yin says. “Those traditional in-person visits seem to have been replaced by online appointments where doctors can more easily provide follow-up with their patients.” Also, the ability for doctors to examine patients and answer their questions remotely may reduce the need for in-person visits, freeing clinic and hospital resources for patients requiring more critical care.
Another fascinating aspect of their research showed that healthcare providers who specialize in chronic illnesses experienced a higher increase in online demand and reputation and a lower decrease in in-person visits. Why? “Perhaps this is because the integration of online/offline services on the platform better serves those chronic disease specialists who need to communicate more often with patients, synchronize medical records, track patient progress, manage treatment and measure outcomes more quickly,” says Yin. Their research has found that integrating online and offline visits is beneficial for patients with chronic illnesses, enabling them to build a long relationship with doctor and improving overall healthcare satisfaction.
On the surface, these e-healthcare platforms appear to be mostly beneficial. However, there may be some unintended downsides. For example, while an online platform could potentially resolve shortages of medical care in regional areas, it might also hurt doctors who serve those smaller communities. “Doctors in the larger cities are typically seen as being more professional or experienced than doctors in smaller towns,” says Yin. “This might not be an accurate assumption, of course. But if patients are more likely to favor doctors in metropolitan areas it could have a negative impact on the practices and reputations of doctors in smaller communities.”
So, the answer to the first question they wanted to answer—how do these e-healthcare platforms affect a doctor’s online and offline demand?—was that it increased the total number of online consultations and reduced the number of in-person appointments.
For the second question—how do these platforms impact doctor’s social reputations?—Yin and her team discovered that the impact was quite positive. “Providers who participated in these e-healthcare platforms saw positive improvement in their professional reputations,” says Yin.
Overall, the increased demand for e-healthcare seems to be driven by positive outcomes for both doctors and patients alike. But moving forward there are still a variety of factors to consider as healthcare continues to move out of the doctor’s office and into the cyber-realm.