Do online physician rating sites help patients to choose a good doctor?

The following op-ed was published on October 27th, 2010 in USA Today.

When I ask new patients how they found me, frequently they say on the Internet through search engines such as Google.

Out of curiosity, I recently Googled myself. Numerous ads appeared, promising readers a “detailed background report” or a “profile” of me. Among the search results was information about my practice, whether I was board certified, had any lawsuits against me, and reviews from online doctor rating sites. Thankfully, most were favorable, but some were not.

Can patients reliably choose a good doctor online?

People already choose restaurants, movies, and their college professors based on what they read on the Internet, so it’s inevitable that many will research their doctors on the Web as well. But there are some good reasons consumers should be wary of the information they find online about doctors.

Random information?

An Archives of Internal Medicine study in September found that most publicly available information on individual physicians — such as disciplinary actions, the number of malpractice payments, or years of experience — had little correlation with whether they adhered to the recommended medical guidelines. In other words, there’s no easy way to research how well a doctor manages conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. That kind of relevant performance data are hidden from the public.

To fill the information void, dozens of online physician rating sites have surfaced. Most allow patients to critique their doctors anonymously, scoring them on the friendliness of their office staff, communication skills, punctuality and knowledge.

But the medical profession has been slow to embrace online reviews. Nancy Nielsen, past president of the American Medical Association, has said: “Anonymous online rating sites that don’t allow physician access add nothing to the quality of patient-physician communication and understanding.” Some doctors have even sued their online critics, claiming libel and defamation.

Little patient traffic

Despite such concerns, patients don’t use these sites that often, which is another drawback. The number of Web ratings of me, for instance, can be counted on one hand. This year, Tara Lagu published a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine finding that 70% of Boston doctors spread over 33 rating sites had no reviews. Educated physician choices cannot be made on such scant information.

How can a Web search for a doctor be improved?

First, physicians should encourage patients to leave online reviews. More data are needed to make the ratings useful. And for those worried about libel, consider that, according to Lagu’s study, almost 90% of online patient reviews were positive.

Second, anonymous reviews should not be allowed. Not only can anonymous posts be manipulated by someone bearing a grudge, glowing narratives can be planted by a doctor or his staff. Ratings accountability allows doctors to use real patient feedback to constructively improve their practice. Angie’s List, a leading fee-based consumer rating service, sets an example by not allowing anonymous reviews of health professionals.

And finally, objective performance data, such as how often doctors appropriately screen patients for cancer, or how many of their patients meet blood pressure or cholesterol targets, are often not revealed. They need to be made publicly available.

Until these improvements are made, patients going online to look for a new doctor could be disappointed by what they find.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also in FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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  • t petrusick

    I recently googled myself to see how a medical board sanction appeared. It was after several positive comments. One of the other physicians in the group years earlier had a complaint filed with the medical board from a disgruntled patients mother. It appeared at the top of the google list and was more negative sounding than my own and a much more trivial matter. So if you are busy you stand an even chance to have a suit , but lots of chances for good comments from patients. I tell my patients when they move to ask their friends for referrals to a doctor unless I personally know someone and am up-to-date on them

  • Jen

    I agree with a lot of your points. I’m most familiar with the websites Yelp and Checkbook. The main problem I have with these sites is that they tend to favor popular doctors. Yelp has many young people who in general don’t seem to have health problems that are challenging enough to judge medical competence — “he has nice eyes”. Checkbook users favor old doctors, some of whom don’t even have practices anymore. That said, these sites can help flush out doctors who have poorly run businesses or horrible clinical practices, so I’ve found them very, very useful — with some caveats.

    I totally disagree with your position on anonymity. Anonymity is critical to getting opinions out there. The medical establishment as a whole suffers when doctors practice w/o criticism. There is a well established precedent of doctors suing patients who write comments, or otherwise threatening both them and the sites that host comments.

    Doctors develop and share opinions about the patients that are largely unseen all the time. They should, like everyone else, be open to the fact that some patients won’t like them. Furthermore, insurance mandated, assembly line medicine will often fail. The more dissatisfaction is aired, that faster the system will be forced to change or individual doctors will be forced to change. Doctors with consistently poor patient ratings have earned that distrust, to me, that’s clear.

  • Alice

    When I was busy having babies, my friends would make a call to the nurse’s station of the best hospital near us and ask the nurses for recommendations (sometimes they complied, sometimes they wouldn’t unless you specifically asked them who their OB was). Or word of mouth from nurses you know is a great way to find the truth. Nurses know who is respectful, and who has good outcomes. It’s not foolproof, but it’s definitely worth asking questions. We found our beloved doctor via a research nurse. She said he was the “only” ENT she would recommend (and this is a huge system, so “only one” is a bit disappointing).

    I asked the residents for recommendations for a good endocrinologist (there are about 30 at this hospital). They looked at each other and said, “Yeah, there are one or two really good ones up there.” Sigh!

  • solo dr

    Patients find me from their insurance books in the the benefits departments, insurance websites, my website, and word of mouth. I am flattered when nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare workers see me as their doctor and recommend me to people. I try to treat people with respect and the way I would want to be treated. As a side note, some of the worst recommendations for doctors come from the doctors who simply recommend their country club or medical society buddies who may be great at politics and socializing with other doctors but who have difficulties caring for patients and interacting with nurses.

  • IVF-MD

    One should not rely on referrals and ratings as the only nor even the main criteria when choosing a physician.

    Those things might slightly guide you into researching someone, but nothing beats a face-to-face meeting before deciding.

    The truly best way is to meet the doctor yourself and interview him/her. Observe for yourself how the staff are trained. Observe for yourself how well the doctor and the staff answer your questions. Even if you’ve seen someone for a while, don’t be afraid to switch if you’re less than satisfied.

    I love my dentist, my optometrist and my dogs’ vet, but none of them were my first. I spent time/energy to explore new providers and when I found one whom I liked better, I switched. I’ve been with each of the above for 3+ years now. I only like my PCP slightly, but I see him every 3-4 years for 10 minutes, so I’m not that picky.

    In some cases, as with my CPA, I switched and then eventually switched back.

    If we can maintain a system where it’s easy for patients and customers to “vote” with their feet, not only will it aid us in finding the best providers, but it will also motivate providers to go the extra mile to retain the patients whom they like to have.

    I understand that it is not super easy to shop around some times, but if you can shop around for your hairdresser and your mechanic, it’s not impossible to put a little effort into shopping around for the doctor who is best for you. That’s just my opinion anyway.

  • Alice

    I only like my PCP slightly, but I see him every 3-4 years for 10 minutes, so I’m not that picky. [end quote]

    Golly… are a doctor and you are not finding a really good doctor….and you aren’t picky….umm……if you can’t find good care where does that leave the rest of the consumers…um….patients?

    I don’t know….doctors here get their knickers in a twist every time I share this, but somehow medical schools selection process is lacking. The question the general public keeps asking is how doctors can spend all those years in medical school and still be inept or lacking….knowing they love to blame management (they are a real pain…but blameless as far as the variety of skills it takes to be a truly good doctor), yet sometimes it seems the current training system leaves a segment of doctors complacent.

    • IVF-MD

      Alice, I understand your point, but my case is specific.

      Well, in the past decade, I injured my finger once and I needed minor surgery on it. For that, I found a great orthopedist who was a church friend of my parents. But, other than that, I haven’t really gotten sick. Every year, there is a health day at one of the hospitals where I work where I can get all sorts of screening done.

      So the only reason I go to my doctor once every four years is to get some paperwork signed for my credentialing. The reason I only like him slightly is because I have so little contact with him. I can’t even remember what he looks like nor his name. He was assigned to me by my health plan and I see him for free. If I did need some problem solved, then I would do my due diligence in finding someone good, even if I had to pay for it.

      Alice, as for your comment that med schools selection process is lacking, I’d be willing to dissect this with you. Take a good guess on these questions 1) Who is doing the selection? 2) What are their motives?

      Because if what you say is true (and I’m not necessarily disputing it), then one would have to wonder if they are bad at what they do or if they are not trying their best. Once you find the answer to those two questions, you might either understand better and/or get more annoyed by it all :) I greatly enjoy your comments.

      • Alice

        Alice, as for your comment that med schools selection process is lacking, I’d be willing to dissect this with you. Take a good guess on these questions 1) Who is doing the selection? 2) What are their motives? [end quote]

        It’s doctors like you that make posting here worth it.
        To be honest…..the questions you asked do lead to more understanding….but……gosh…..I am not scared…….I am bloody well terrified now! Oh just a little……umm…… :)

  • Louise Hancock

    I believe reviews are important for a patient. If a physician is reviewed as a great physician, I am definitely going to see him. If he is rated arrogant, rude or poor bedside manner and in too much of a hurry, I will definitely think before scheduling an appt.

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