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Can Patients Choose A Good Doctor Online?

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 percent 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 percent 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.

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*


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