Abstract: Trophies and Stars: Using Heuristic Cues in Credibility Perceptions of Doctor’s Online Profiles

◆ Zane Dayton, University of North Texas
◆ Ruth Fajardo, University of North Texas

As of 2010, nearly 80 percent of American adults had used the Internet to research health information (Hu & Sundar, 2010). Although patients typically rely on the Internet for health information, the Internet begets a platform for physicians to disseminate a sense of credibility and trustworthiness in attracting potential patients. Lin and Spence (2018) highlighted that system-generated cues such as online ratings can potentially enhance credibility perceptions, which may lead patients to perceive a physician as credible and trustworthy through the bandwagon heuristic. Although some researchers (D’Angelo & Van Der Heide, 2016; Westerwick, 2013) have examined online credibility of physicians through the analysis of web site design and images of a physician, only limited research exists in connection with the bandwagon heuristic and perceptions of doctor credibility (Jucks & Thon, 2017).

In the study, we sought to understand how bandwagon (peer-reviews) and achievement heuristic cues influence the credibility perceptions of physicians based upon their online profiles. We conducted a 2 (online peer rating: one- v. five-stars) x 2 (number of achievements: one v. five achievements) using an online questionnaire. Participants (N = 140) first encountered a scenario where they required a heart surgeon and then received one of the four physician profile stimuli.
After examining the stimuli, participants answered questions measuring both competence and trustworthiness. Participants ranked four variables at the end of the survey pertaining to which variable may have exerted the most influence in their perceptions of the doctor’s credibility. The variables ranked by the participants included: (a) number of accomplishments, (b) peer testimony, (c) lack of picture, and (d) title of the doctor.

Through statistical analysis, we discovered two underlying themes within the findings. Participants tended to rate competence higher than trustworthiness, indicating that users may perceive a physician as competent but not trustworthy. Although a patient may perceive a physician as competent or trustworthy, patients may not necessarily consider both when determining credibility. Additionally, the number of achievements tended to influence the perceptions of both competence and trustworthiness more than the inclusion of peer-reviews. Therefore, physicians should include some achievements or accolades on their online profiles to positively influence patient’s perceptions of credibility.

With our ranking variable, we discovered one theme relating to the influence of peer-reviews on perceptions of credibility. Participants indicated that peer-reviews most influenced their perceptions of credibility only when the online profile contained one-star. With participants highlighting peer reviews as most influential when containing one-star, we can extend the research of Lin, Spence, & Lachlan (2016) and posit that negative reviews can result in more detrimental outcomes than a lack of reviews.

Although many researchers (Go et al., 2014; Jucks & Thon, 2017; Lee & Sundar, 2013; Lin & Spence, 2018) have examined the effects of bandwagon cues and judgments of online credibility, our findings suggest that patients perceive credibility using a combination of cues. Practical implications include how physicians can utilize different heuristic cues in increasing their levels of perceived trustworthiness and competence with both current and potential patients.