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How 'important' are online physician ratings? It depends.

March 14, 2014

    Hanna Jaquith, Daily Briefing

    Some doctors spend a lot of time sprucing up their online rankings. And many patients say they do look at websites when picking a physician.

    But in terms of relying on Internet reviews to find a doctor—well, it doesn't seem like health care is Amazon.com yet.

    Looking beyond recent headlines

    This issue was in the news last month, and we covered it in the Daily Briefing. A recent JAMA study found that almost 60% of U.S. adults said physician-ranking websites were at least "somewhat important" when selecting a doctor. Moreover, it found that patients are increasingly turning to online ratings when selecting a physician, much like how they would select a good movie or a reputable plumber.

    Most Americans consider ratings 'important' in doctor selection

    (The study authors, from the University of Michigan, acknowledge that the science of rating doctors online is still in its infancy, and many of these reviews can be misleading, or even harmful. It "may be time for physicians to think about how to participate in developing reliable ratings," the researchers concluded.)

    The percentage of adults who value online ratings is eye-catching, but it's important to place the JAMA survey results in context, experts on the Advisory Board's Marketing and Planning Leadership Council told me. I sat down with the Council's Alicia Daugherty and Anna Yakovenko to discuss their recent primary care survey of 3,800-plus respondents, which produced results similar to those of the JAMA study.

    The Council's survey measured consumer preference when choosing a provider for an urgent primary care visit across five categories: access/convenience, cost, quality, reputation, and service. Participants were provided a list of 56 statements and asked to choose which option was most preferable.

    The most important element for respondents: "I'm guaranteed to be seen within 30 minutes." The second-most important element had to do with costs: "The provider is in-network for my insurer."

    Meanwhile, "other patients recommended the physician in online reviews" came in near the bottom: It was the 48th most preferable option.

    Online reviews also ranked last in the JAMA study—behind "accepts my health insurance" and "convenience of location," Daugherty and Yakovenko point out. The difference between the two surveys lies in how the question was framed. While the Council's survey required patients to make trade-offs among variables, the JAMA study asked respondents to rate each factor’s importance, allowing them to designate multiple factors as "very important."

    "You've got to consider whether you're asking people to make tradeoffs," Yakovenko says. "So if you ask somebody if online reputation is important, they're going to say yes. But if you ask them to rate it based on other factors, it doesn't come out on top."

    In short, "We're not saying that online ratings are unimportant," Daugherty notes. But, "If you have to make decide where you're making investments, our guidance would be to focus on other pieces first."


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