Doc-Rating Sites Useless?

Consumers are hungry for physician ratings but websites fall short.

Physicians have complained for years that reviews and scoring systems on commercial doctor-rating websites where patients can anonymously review their doctors are often unfair and inaccurate.

A new study reported in a research letter in JAMA looks at these sites from the patient’s perspective and finds something new: the sites aren’t much use to patients either.

“Search mechanisms are cumbersome and reviews scarce,” wrote lead author, Tara Lagu, MD, MPH, and colleagues at the Center for Quality of Care Research, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Massachusetts and two other institutions. In their study they used Google to find 66 potential sites that allowed patients to rate their physicians. They narrowed their search to those that did not require a payment, allowed patients to search by physician name, to leave reviews, were written in English and were available to the public. They excluded sites affiliated with insurance companies or health systems or ones that were limited to a single specialty.

That left them with 28 sites. Choosing a random sample from a public list of 600 practicing physicians from three metropolitan areas (Boston, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon; and Dallas, Texas) they then calculated the median number of reviews each physician got (seven) on those sites and also found that only a third of physicians (34%) had no reviews on any of the sites.

Despite the sites’ shortcomings, the authors note that the number of physician reviews online has increased dramatically since a 2009 study found that 73% of physicians had no online reviews. But overall, most physicians in 2016 had no more than one review on any site.

Patients are eager to learn how others rated doctors the patients may be considering visiting. That may be particularly true as patients find their provider networks and insurance coverage changing frequently. But the team found many sites do not allow users to search by a physician’s hospital affiliation, gender, or by the patient’s medical condition.

“Given the demand by consumers for information about physicians, other methods for publishing patient feedback are being developed and some health system are beginning to report quantitative reviews and narratives drawn from patient experience surveys,” the team noted.

In their limited analysis using the 28 sites and 600 physicians, the researchers found that the sites with the most physicians who were reviewed were Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com, Ucomparehealth.com, and RateMDs.com.

They made no attempt to analyze quantitative ratings (those using a “star” system of ranking physician performance) because of the small numbers of reviews and variation in rating scales. Though the physicians in the sample were listed as practicing, the authors also noted they did not attempt to verify that status.