Understanding Online Physician Rating Sites

As if Facebook and Twitter and other social media don’t offer enough cyber-information overload, the newest player in the age of social networking is doctor and hospital rating sites. More than 30 such rate-your-doctor Websites exist today, including Healthgrades.com and RateMDs.com, as well as more general consumer guides such as Angielist.com – more known for rating plumbers than clinicians – and Yelp.com.

These sites have been slow to catch on, but fears that the online rating services will become gripe engines for disgruntled patients haven’t proven true. Although the American Medical Association has expressed concerns that patient confidentiality requirements would leave doctors helpless to respond to negative patient reviews on rating websites, researchers have actually found that most physician online reviews are positive.

“Patients value their relationship with their clinicians, and I think they respect their healthcare providers and are reluctant to portray them in a negative light,” says Dr. Tara Lagu, of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. Lagu examined online reviews for 81 doctors and found that the majority of the reviews were positive, despite doctor’s fears of being roasted by anonymous postings.

It might seem strange to some patients to see their doctor reviewed by Yelp, more known for starred restaurant reviews than internist rankings. However, John Swapceinski, co-founder of RateMDs.com, says that “when it comes right down to it, people spend money on health services, just like any other good or product, and they want the most value for their dollars.” RateMDs.com helps consumers find and evaluate physicians.

On Vitals.com (“where doctors are examined”) offers reviews, ratings, expertise, experience, sanctions, and other information. Doctors can login to the site and manage their online profiles, verify office information and add a photo, which increases the click-through rate. The physician information and reviews appear not just on the Vitals website, but are also pulled into results on search engines like Google and Bing.

Practitioners can offset negative reviews by neutralizing them with positive comments, said Jeffrey Cutler, general manager of Vitals. They can do so by distributing free, customizable comment cards to clientele. “This encourages patients to go online and share their positive interactions with others,” Cutler says. “It hopefully keeps the negative comments offline to be dealt with by your office staff.”

“Reputation” websites also offer a way to manage information. RepuChek, now in beta, for example, monitors web activities and social media sites in real-time. Using search engine optimization and other tools, RepuChek pushes positive pages while moving damaging references off the first pages of search results.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, online physician rating tools are beginning to catch on, with physicians using rating websites to gain prestige and increase consumer confidence in their community. Physicians also use negative rankings to identify areas for improvement. However, in order to be considered reliable in the public eye, the organization believes there must be third party validation of the information on such sites.

Chris Bevolo, a Minneapolis, Minn.,-based healthcare marketer and consultant, said that he believes the influence of physician review websites might actually be dropping. “These sites have yet to catch on due to the lack of brand awareness from the many sources among consumers and the transient nature of rating and awards – they’re changing constantly.”

But Lagu of Baystate Medical Center and Tufts University, says patient reviews are the next step in a continuing trend toward greater transparency in healthcare. “Instead of fearing what comments patients might leave, physicians and hospitals should encourage feedback,” Lagu says.

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