Don’t let the doctors dissuade you

May 1, 2013 in health care quality, Medical Care, Member Stories

The Boston Globe recently reported that “Dr. Richard Aghababian, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, believes rating websites present a skewed picture of doctors because patients are more likely to post about negative experiences.” This sentiment resonates with the results of a recently published survey conducted by the American College of Physician Executives, which was announced with the headline “Survey Finds Physicians Very Wary of Doctor Ratings.”

Dr. Aghababian’s belief is conventional wisdom — after all, who else besides disgruntled patients would bother to post a review? However, there have been a number of studies that disprove this notion. One study showed a median rating of 4.5 out of 5, while another study found that 88% of the reviews it looked at were positive. Curious about the subject, we at DocSpot (a free consumer website that helps people find doctors and allows patients to leave reviews) conducted our own study of nearly a quarter million online patient reviews and found that the majority of online reviews gave doctors the top score possible (5 out of 5). Is that the skewed picture that Dr. Aghababian was referring to?

To be fair, we don’t believe that online patient ratings give a comprehensive and accurate picture of doctors. We think that patient reviews are better indicators for certain aspects of care than others. “Is a doctor rude?” and “Does a patient feel rushed?” are questions that online reviews can lend insight into. Online reviews are also likely to alert prospective patients to other aspects of the experience, such as any unexpected billing practices. When people want to know “will I be healed?”, that’s a much trickier question. Obviously, there is an asymmetry of information: the doctor has formally trained and worked in the profession for many years, whereas we mere lay people have not. The difference in experience, however, does not preclude patients from being able to add to the conversation. For example, patients who have undergone cosmetic surgery can reasonably assess the visual results and patients who have suffered depression and have gotten better can make meaningful comments about their progress. Obviously, the fate of one patient under a doctor’s care does not mean that the next patient will necessarily experience the same outcome. But if you see ten reviews about a doctor and eight of them comment negatively about medical outcomes, that is probably a warning signal, despite the asymmetry in expertise.

In summary, we believe that online patient reviews can be a meaningful but incomplete component to consider when selecting a personal physician. Savvy consumers will recognize the limitations and strengths of online reviews and will look for tools that include other facets of a physician’s training and experience. And business-savvy doctors? Instead of categorically dismissing the entire idea, doctors might embrace the notion and encourage their patients to leave reviews. After all, the numbers seem to skew positive.

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