Last night, I had dinner with a prominent local neurologist. Naturally, the conversation turned to healthcare marketing. I mentioned that health care had always been a word-of-mouth business–and that, today in healthcare marketing, it was easier than ever to build good word of mouth via the Internet.

She shook her head. “I think it’s awful, what Angie’s List is doing,” she said. “Rating doctors. I hate it so much, I cancelled my subscription.”

“What’s so terrible?” I asked.

My neurologist friend rolled her eyes. “The things people rate aren’t necessarily things they should be using to judge a doctor. Waiting times, waiting rooms, friendliness of the staff–those are nice, but they may not have anything to do with good doctoring. Plus, people tend to like doctors who are kindly but don’t necessarily tell it like it is in a way that’s helpful to patients. I accept that healthcare marketing may be a necessary evil. I just don’t think patients rating doctors is a good idea.”

Great points. Patients don’t have any idea what doctors know or don’t know about the art and science of medicine. They can judge their doctors only on superficial factors. Even outcomes are suspect. The best doctors tend to get the most acute cases–for which you’d naturally expect outcomes to be worse.

A logical protest. That ignores one fact:

Your patients are already rating you.

At OurFightAgainstCancer.com, St.Vincent Cancer Care physicians share stories about treatment options.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you like it, or whether they should be allowed to have any sort of influence over prospective patients. They already have influence. It’s a fact of life in health care, as it is in any business. Painters and auto mechanics and chefs all get rated by customers. Doctors do, too.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or prudent. It doesn’t matter that doctors are, in some cases, dealing with actual matters of life and death. In fact, if you are a doctor who deals in matters of life and death, it’s more important than ever for you to understand that patients are judging you on superficialities. They’re judging you. And they’re telling friends and strangers via venues such as Angie’s List.

That’s why healthcare marketers must join the conversation online. Clearly, it’s not a conversation you can control. But you can add to it eloquently. It may be true that actions speak louder than words. But on the Internet, your words are your actions. The content you create is your face to the world.

Don’t worry about controlling the conversation. Today’s healthcare marketing isn’t about control. It’s about content. If your healthcare marketing plan doesn’t include provisions to converse with patients and prospects online, you’re missing the greatest opportunity a word-of-mouth business ever had.