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Web-based health services, remote consultation, machine learning, data mining, decision tree, patient involvement


Background: Online health care consultation has become increasingly popular and is considered a potential solution to health care resource shortages and inefficient resource distribution. However, many online medical consultation platforms are struggling to attract and retain patients who are willing to pay, and health care providers on the platform have the additional challenge of standing out in a crowd of physicians who can provide comparable services. Objective: This study used machine learning (ML) approaches to mine massive service data to (1) identify the important features that are associated with patient payment, as opposed to free trial–only appointments; (2) explore the relative importance of these features; and (3) understand how these features interact, linearly or nonlinearly, in relation to payment. Methods: The dataset is from the largest China-based online medical consultation platform, which covers 1,582,564 consultation records between patient-physician pairs from 2009 to 2018. ML techniques (ie, hyperparameter tuning, model training, and validation) were applied with four classifiers—logistic regression, decision tree (DT), random forest, and gradient boost—to identify the most important features and their relative importance for predicting paid vs free-only appointments. Results: After applying the ML feature selection procedures, we identified 11 key features on the platform, which are potentially useful to predict payment. For the binary ML classification task (paid vs free services), the 11 features as a whole system achieved very good prediction performance across all four classifiers. DT analysis further identified five distinct subgroups of patients delineated by five top-ranked features: previous offline connection, total dialog, physician response rate, patient privacy concern, and social return. These subgroups interact with the physician differently, resulting in different payment outcomes. Conclusions: The results show that, compared with features related to physician reputation, service-related features, such as service delivery quality (eg, consultation dialog intensity and physician response rate), patient source (eg, online vs offline returning patients), and patient involvement (eg, provide social returns and reveal previous treatment), appear to contribute more to the patient’s payment decision. Promoting multiple timely responses in patient-provider interactions is essential to encourage payment.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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