“The number-one surprise was the positive results,” says Gao. “The American Medical Association and others have said that the sites can ruin physicians’ reputations.”
In a statement, the AMA said that “anonymous online opinions of physicians should be taken with a grain of salt and should not be a patient’s sole source of information when looking for a new physician.”
The study results are consistent with other types of online consumer ratings, says Ritu Agarwal, director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems and co-author of the study. “In studies of word of mouth in other domains such as movies and books, positive word of mouth dominates negative in online ratings.”
Physician reviews that skew toward the positive may please doctors, but for consumers they’re not particularly useful as a guide in selecting one. Experts point to the comments that people often include with their ratings, saying they can be helpful in assessing a physician, as long as people keep in mind that each is just one person’s opinion.
For example, someone might read a review that says a doctor returns phone calls on weekends, says Anne Weiss, who directs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s health-care quality work; the foundation provided funding for the Massachusetts ratings project. “That might be really important to me.”
Rating sites of any sort help consumers take a more active role in managing their health and making health-care choices, say experts. And that’s important, whether the information comes from a scientifically valid survey or an anonymous online review.
“There are lots of things people could pick up that I would not call evidence-based,” says Weiss. “But even those are opportunities for people to understand their role as consumers.”
This column is produced through a collaboration between The Post and Kaiser Health News. KHN, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health-care-policy organization that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. E-mail: questions@kaiserhealthnews.