Consumers increasingly turn to commercial physician-rating websites, similar to those for restaurants and hotels, when searching for a new doctor, but the sites rarely have information that actually helps patients, researchers say.
Most doctors typically have no more than a few reviews on a site, and the reviews often don’t provide good insight into the doctor’s qualifications, personality or the patient experience, a new study finds.
“Many friends have called me and said they want to find information about a doctor, but when they look online, they can’t find anything,” said lead author Tara Lagu of the Center for Quality of Care Research at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“Although consumers can look on state licensing board websites to research lawsuits and criminal information, it seems what they’re really looking for is a review from fellow patients to find a doctor who shares their values,” Lagu told Reuters Health.
During September 2016, Lagu and colleagues searched for public websites that allow patients to review doctors in the U.S., didn’t require a subscription and had search capabilities. They found 28 sites that met their criteria and looked for information on a randomly selected list of 600 doctors in three cities: Boston, Dallas and Portland, Oregon.
All but two of the sites included an overall “star” rating for doctors, and all collected narrative comments but two didn’t make them public. The most commonly used sites seem to be Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com, UCompareHealthCare.com and RateMDs.com.
Across the 28 websites, more than 8,000 reviews had 1,784 narrative comments for the 600 doctors. About a third of the doctors didn’t have a review on any website, and those who had at least one review were likely to have only three or four. In some cases, the narratives were repeats written on more than one site, Lagu and colleagues report in JAMA.
“Word used to spread by mouth, and doctors who looked the part often got the business,” said Thomas Lee, Boston-based chief medical officer for Press Ganey, a patient satisfaction survey company. “That’s clearly going by the wayside and moving online, which is not just for the younger generation but their parents as well.”
About 60 percent of consumers looking for information about doctors online say reviews are important, according to a 2014 study published in JAMA.
“Consumers should still be careful about what they view on these sites,” said David Hanauer of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, lead author of the 2014 paper.
“It’s hard to know what is real, and it’s hard to make a fair assessment with so few ratings,” Hanauer, who wasn’t involved with the current study, told Reuters Health by email. “If consumers use these sites, they should visit multiple sites to get a more complete picture before making any decisions.”
Rather than rely on commercial sites to produce accurate information, doctors and health systems could use their own patient surveys to publish this type of information online, Lagu said. Since healthcare laws require them to collect patient experience numbers and narratives, they can post data onto doctors’ profile pages. Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, for example, posts a star rating and lists patient narratives, which average 30 to 100 reviews per doctor.
“The limitation is that this is expensive to implement, so it may not be available for smaller hospitals or health systems,” Lagu added. “Also, health systems would control the data, so not all comments may be posted and not anyone could just post a comment.”
Similarly, federal agencies such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are researching the possibility of posting patient narratives on sites such as Physician Compare, the searchable website for patients with Medicare.
“The federal government has put great emphasis on physician quality reporting such as the Physician Compare program,” said Gordon Gao of the University of Maryland in College Park, who wasn’t involved with the current study.
Although commercial doctor-rating sites don’t say much about physician quality, they’re a start when it comes to patient experience, Gao and colleagues wrote in a 2015 JAMA Internal Medicine article.
“Abundant evidence suggests that physicians are not created equal, and there is substantial variation in the quality of physicians,” Gao told Reuters Health by email. “These (federal) programs have great potential to change the landscape of public reporting.”