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Medical Professionals Question Online Doctor Ratings

By Tim Callahan | 24 Feb 2021

Consumers regularly turn to review sites to assess everything from restaurants and hotels to service providers. Today, it’s one of the most practical steps in avoiding a poor experience. And now, many potential patients are choosing physicians based on online reviews, using sites like Healthgrades, Vitals, RateMDs, and even Yelp. GettyImages-1208411337

Today’s patients tend to take a more hands-on approach to manage their health, and part of that means finding out what others have experienced with a particular physician, practice or hospital. While patients may rely on these real-life assessments, a recent study finds cause to question the reliability of online reviews of healthcare systems.

Study of Online Doctor Ratings

Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas examined the relationship between physicians’ reviews posted online by their patients and real-life clinical outcomes. They sought to uncover whether patient reviews were objective, provided usable information, and if these rankings were trustworthy, specifically as they related to chronic disease care.

Chronic diseases require ongoing care, careful monitoring, and management that may involve multiple treatments over an extended period. According to the CDC, 90% of the $3.5 trillion Americans spend annually on healthcare goes toward managing chronic diseases — which are treatable but rarely curable. Conditions such as COPD and diabetes often require patients to seek ongoing care from multiple physicians over several years. Because patients are not always able to see the big picture, they may become frustrated — and this frustration may very well culminate in a less-than-stellar review.

Online Ratings for Management of Chronic Disease

Reviews for chronic conditions, which have no clear benchmark, are relatively unreliable. Compared to assessing assessing attention for acute conditions, surgical outcomes, or treatment for something like a broken bone, there isn’t a clear-cut way to determine whether  physicians did a thorough and satisfying job managing a chronic disease. 

With this in mind, the researchers at UT Dallas examined 10 years of  admission and discharge information for patients with COPD. The team looked at each patient’s clinical journey through hospitals in North Texas, spanning multiple physicians, and the content and star-ratings of online reviews at one of the ranking websites.

The study determined that, in the area of chronic disease, online reviews and rankings are not a reliable indicator for the quality of care provided by physicians. Researchers measured care in terms of readmissions and other clinical outcomes data. When compared against online reviews and rankings, the study found both the star ratings and content reviews were uninformative and, in some cases, contrary to the actual quality of care. 

This raises concern given hospital administrators often rely on patient surveys to determine physicians’ compensation. The clear message to administrators at those hospitals is that online reviews are simply not reliable, and even hospital administered surveys fall short when it comes to assessing the actual quality of care.

How Patients Use Online Reviews

Patients who rely on online reviews more often do so when looking for a primary care physician, according to Software Advice. While online reviews play a small role in determining patient retention, most patients rely on these reviews and rankings to decide on making their initial appointment.

Patients who tend to need the most healthcare, those over the age of 50, admit online physician ratings don’t sway them all that much. Just 43% of those patients admit looking up reviews for a physician online to find out how others rated them, according to Healthcare Finance.

While most of these patients trust their doctors, what seemed to matter more to older individuals between 50 and 80 was the appointment wait time. A sizeable 61% said that was a greater determinate than how many stars a physician earned, and 40% relied on recommendations from other physicians and doctors’ level of experience, according to the same Healthcare Finance article.

The Takeaway

Overall, many patients tend to rely on physician reviews when determining the right doctor for their needs. Unfortunately, these online reviews don’t always paint a clear picture, and the doctor-patient relationship is decidedly unique to those individuals. Some physicians are skeptical about these review sites, and a few have even filed defamation lawsuits over public reviews.

While reviews provide useful information to patients and consumers, such as whether the staff is courteous and efficient, they are not reliable indicators of the quality of care provided.

So what can you do? As a physician, your best bet is to continue offering the best care you can, ensure customer service issues are taken seriously within your organization, respond to negative reviews with respect, and ask your best patients to leave their two-cents.

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