Online physician reviews are so few in number and sparse in details that they may offer little value to patients looking for a provider, according to a research letter published Tuesday in JAMA.
For the study, researchers in September 2016 examined a random sample of 600 physicians in Boston, Portland, Oregon, and Dallas to determine the number of reviews per physician across 28 rating websites, 26 of which used star ratings. To be included in the study websites had to be active, open to the public without a subscription, and written in English, and they had to allow for users to leave reviews and search by physician name. The researchers excluded websites affiliated with an insurance company or health system.
The researchers identified a total of 8,133 quantitative reviews for the 600 physicians. Physicians with at least one review across the 28 sites examined had a median of seven reviews, but "most physicians in 2016 still had no more than one review on any site," the researchers wrote. Thirty-four percent of physicians had no online reviews.
While the researchers said the number of online reviews appears to have increased since 2009—when a similar study identified 190 online reviews for 300 physicians across 33 sites—they said the total likely is still too low to provide patients with an accurate picture of a provider's care.
"[T]hese results demonstrate that it is difficult for a prospective patient to find (for any given physician on any commercial physician-rating website) a quantity of reviews that would accurately relay the experience of care with that physician," the researchers wrote.
Further, the researchers wrote that most online reviews were unstructured, and hypothesized that surveys and other ways to systematically collect data "may have a greater chance of amassing a sufficient quantity and quality of reviews to allow patients to make inferences about patient experience of care."
The researchers also found that sites restricted users' ability to search for providers. They found:
- 15 sites allowed users to search by hospital affiliation;
- Nine sites allowed users to search by insurance network; and
- Five sites allowed users to search by clinical condition.
Despite the low use of physician rating websites, Bryan Jick, an ob-gyn at Huntington Hospital and Fair Oaks Women's Health in Pasadena, California, said providers should pay more attention to their online reputation and take remedial steps if necessary to improve their ratings. "Hire friendly and helpful staff. Intercept the upset patient before they leave the office and do everything you can to prevent those negative reviews in the first place," Jick said.
Going forward, Jick said he would like to see custom patient surveys become "the predominant source of online reviews one day." He added, "The surveys generate their own rating score, and enable the practice to post this on their website with a notation of how many responses have been analyzed" (Punke, Becker's Hospital Review, 2/22; Lou, MedPage Today, 2/21; Finnegan, FierceHealthcare, 2/22; Lagu et al., JAMA, 2/21).
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