Just a few days ago, I was on Amazon.com looking for a suitcase for an upcoming trip, since my old one had broken. While perusing the “customer reviews” section for buyers’ opinions, I asked myself why I was paying so much attention to reviews from people whom I’ve never met or don’t know.
After all, does it matter what these people think of a Samsonite bag? Furthermore, are the reviews even real, or are they fabricated by product manufacturers? At the end of the day, it really shouldn’t be such a high priority for me, yet just like many others, the opinions of random people do matter and do impact the decisions I make. Of course, I ended up purchasing the suitcase on Amazon with the highest “star” rating in my price range.
Such is the life of online shopping.
In healthcare, patients and doctors represent the customers and products of online shopping. There has been controversy in recent years about medical professionals’ online reviews—should they matter, should doctors respond to them, and where are they coming from are just a few of the questions that are debated in the medical community.
Doctors do seem to be particularly sensitive when it comes to their online reviews, and that has certainly led to some of the hullabaloo. On one hand, it’s easy to see their side—many patients, especially sick ones who unrealistically want to get better by the end of a visit, might not be particularly grateful, despite the doctor doing the best he or she could in a complicated circumstance.
But at times, it seems as if physicians can be too sensitive. Take the case of a Duluth, Minn. neurologist who, in 2011, sued a patient’s son after being criticized on rate-your-doctor websites for his bedside manner.
The doctor alleged that the patient had defamed him and interfered with his business by posting false statements on the internet and to various third parties. Predictably, the court ruled against the physician and dismissed the lawsuit. The physician, in his comments, called the patient a bully, coward, and liar, which seemingly could only make the situation worse when it came to his online reputation.
But that raises another question—what are these online reviews really based on? Unfortunately, an Archives of Internal Medicine study in September, 2010 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. So basically, there is no easy way to research how well a doctor manages conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, according to a 2010 blog post on www.kevinmd.com.
In its place, most rating sites allow patients to critique their doctors anonymously, scoring them on the friendliness of their office staff, communication skills, punctuality, and knowledge.
And anonymity is definitely another concern. The American Medical Association (AMA), which has criticized rating sites, contends that the anonymity most allow detracts from the integrity of reviews while privacy laws prevent physicians from addressing patients’ concerns.
“Anonymous online rating sites that don’t allow physician access add nothing to the quality of patient-physician communication and understanding,” said Nancy H. Nielsen, past president of the AMA. “There is no guarantee that the opinions about a physician even come from that physician’s patient. Anonymous opinions can come from anyone.”
But despite concerns from the medical community, online reviews for doctors and medical practices do remain influential in a patient’s decision when visiting the doctor’s office. A recent survey from Digital Assent, an Atlanta, Ga.-based provider of patient satisfaction surveys, found that 72 percent of patients reported that bad reviews would prevent them from going to see a particular doctor. And 46 percent of patients said it only takes two to five bad reviews out of 100 to discourage them from a particular practice.
What’s more, is that doctors care what their patients say about them. According to a recent survey from ZocDoc, an online medical care scheduling service, 85 percent of physician respondents proactively monitor online reviews about themselves, and 36 percent look at their competitors' reviews.
So with all this in mind, the ultimate question is, how much should these online reviews matter? On the physician side, I think doctors should stop worrying about what people are writing, and be upfront and honest with their patients. If a doctor recommends that his or her patient leave a review, chances are, the review will be positive rather than negative.
And for patients, I would advise to proceed with caution. Yes, reviews could help, but understand that much of the content is random and many reviews are anonymous, so keep that in mind when searching for doctors online—and don’t just blindly choose the suitcase with the highest star rating.