Online Ratings Now Factor In Physician Selection
By Dr. James Palermo // February 20, 2014
RATINGS MAY NOT PROVIDE RELIABLE PRACTICE PROFILE
It is highly likely that if you were planning to go see a new movie, eat at a new restaurant, or were in the market for a new car, refrigerator or cell phone, you would go online to check consumer ratings. That information is readily available and generally reliable.
According to a research letter recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, online ratings have now also started to have an impact on physician selection.
While consumers rated other factors such as word of mouth and years of experience as more important in picking a doctor, 65 percent of respondents were aware of online physician ratings, and nearly three out of five people said a physician’s rating on a website was at least a somewhat important factor when choosing a doctor.
ONLINE SCRUTINY OF PHYSICIAN PRACTICES INCREASING
The survey was conducted by GfK Custom Research, LLC for the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and garnered participation response from 2,137 people of the 3,563 nationally representative sample who received the survey in September of 2012.
Of those who responded, 19 percent said a physician’s rating on a reporting website was a “very important” factor in their choice, and another 40 percent said it was “somewhat important.”
“Online rating sites have gained popularity, and it’s common for people to use them to look up reviews on things like cars, movies or restaurants,” says lead author Dr. David Hanauer, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan. “More recently, doctors have become the subject of ratings. And this research shows that awareness is growing about those online doctor ratings.”
DECISIONS BEING MADE BASED ON CONSUMER WEBSITES
Although online physician rankings were not a top factor in choosing a physician for many respondents, the results show 35 percent of those who sought ratings in the past year had chosen a doctor due to good ratings and 37 percent had avoided a doctor because of bad ratings.
“Our study indicates that the public is using online physician ratings to make important decisions for their healthcare, despite persistent questions about how trustworthy these rating sites are,” Hanauer says.
Only 5 percent of survey participants reported that they have ever posted ratings or reviews of doctors. “The small percentage of people who actually post reviews suggests that people who depend on online ratings may not be getting a balanced picture of a doctor’s care,” Hanauer cautions.
SITES VARY IN RATINGS METHODOLOGY
It is important for the healthcare consumer to be aware of the methodology used by different sites to rate physicians.
What goes into developing these rating sites is largely unclear, Hanauer told MedPage Today in an email. “In fact, visit several rating sites and you can see that they often measure different things, or the same thing in different ways,” he said. “We still don’t really have a good sense of how accurate or trustworthy the physician rating sites are.”
Some sites, like HealthGrades, Vitals, RateMDs and ZocDoc, depend partly on basic information, such as years experience and board certification, and partly on generic consumer satisfaction surveys, which include questions about wait times and physicians’ communication skills, and/or on explicit comments from previous patients.
MINIMAL ONLINE INFORMATION REGARDING INDIVIDUAL PHYSICIAN’S CLINICAL OUTCOMES
The most important factor in choosing a physician should be their quality performance scores that reflect the clinical outcomes of their patients. Unfortunately, although there is available information online related to aggregate quality outcomes for hospitals and some large group practices, there is little or no clinical outcomes data for individual physicians out there.
In reviewing several of the most notable physician ratings sites, I found them difficult to navigate and, in some cases proprietary, requiring registration and a fee.
Dr. Hanauer’s observation that these sites are woefully inadequate at providing some of the most important and meaningful information on which to base physician selection is clearly astute.
PHYSICIANS SHOULD ENGAGE IN DEVELOPING RATINGS PARAMETERS
However, this survey shows that the sites are here to stay.
“I think doctors need to recognize that the awareness and use of these sites seems to be increasing, and I don’t predict that the sites will be disappearing,” Hanauer said. “As such, it may be time for physicians to think about how to participate in developing reliable ratings.”
ONLINE RATINGS STILL WELL BELOW OTHER FACTORS IN CHOOSING PHYSICIANS
Although almost 60 percent of respondents said online physician ratings were “somewhat” or “very” important, accepting health insurance (95 percent), a convenient office location (95 percent), years of experience (92 percent), being part of a trusted group (81 percent), being referred by word of mouth (85 percent), and referral from another physician (81 percent) were all more important to selecting a physician than an online rating.
Roughly 40 percent said online ratings were not important in selecting a physician.
Dr. Hanauer summed up his team’s analysis by saying: “These (online ratings) may seem useful, but no one is regulating this ‘crowd-sourced’ information about doctors. There’s no way to verify its reliability, so online ratings may not currently be the best resource for patients.” (Lowes, Medscape, 2/18; Painter, USA Today, 2/19; MottChildren.org, 2/18; Pittman, Med Page Today, 2/18)