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Physician rating websites mainly sing doctors' praises, study finds

May 18, 2010 |  1:56 pm

DoctorRate Many doctors were considerably worried when websites began to pop up allowing consumers to rate their doctors. They feared disgruntled patients would harm their reputations and ruin their practices. Some even ask their patients to sign a "gag order" prohibiting them from expressing their opinions of the doctor on the Internet.

But a new study urges doctors to remain calm. The study, published online this week in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that the websites haven't caught on in any big way with consumers. Additionally, many of the reviews posted online are positive.

Dr. Tara Lagu, of Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, and her colleagues examined 33 physician rating sites that contained 190 reviews for 81 doctors. They found 88% of the reviews were positive, 6% negative and 6% neutral. General practitioners and specialists did not differ in the types of reviews they received.

Patients just don't appear too interested in providing feedback on their doctors, the authors noted, despite the fact that consumers generally love and use ratings systems. In contrast to the scarcity of doctor reviews, a search of restaurants in Boston's Beacon Hill area "turned up 38 narrative reviews for a single Lebanese restaurant," the authors pointed out

The American Medical Assn. has expressed concerns about such websites, saying that doctors wouldn't be able to respond to negative patient reviews because of patient confidentiality requirements. But the study found that many of the negative comments were about things like the lack of parking and waiting too long in the waiting room -- issues that can be addressed without violating patient confidentiality.

Ratings sites, of course, are subject to manipulation. Perhaps the most obvious tinkering found in the study was that several "narrative reviews" appeared to be written by the doctors themselves. The doctor rating websites overall were found to be "neither user-friendly nor patient-centered," the authors noted. Searching for information is cumbersome, information is incomplete and advertising is prevalent.

The sites have the potential to empower patients. And, to be sure, consumers today are encouraged to be smarter and more discriminating shoppers of healthcare services and products in order to reduce costs. But this is one Internet function that doesn't seem to do patients much good or doctors much harm.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

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