Websites Used to Grade Physicians Get an ‘F’ in Helpfulness

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The Internet has given Americans unparalleled access to reliable health information in recent years. Yet when it comes to choosing a doctor one of the most important decisions we ever can make a new study shows that websites which exist for that purpose fall far short.

Per a research letter published in JAMA, “The number of physician reviews online appears to be increasing (a similar 2009 study revealed only 190 reviews for 300 physicians across 33 sites, with 73 percent of physicians having no review on any site). However, the increase is number of reviews that we reviewed was not meaningful; most physicians in 2016 still had no more than one review on any sites.”

The study, led by Dr. Tara Lagu at the Center for Quality of Care Research, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., examined 28 such sites. Another 38 sites did not meet the researchers’ inclusion criteria, which required having written reviews of doctors, no fee for use, a search-by-name option, and not being restricted to a certain specialty or insurance plan.

“Two sites that collected narratives did not post them,” the authors wrote. “Few sites allowed the user to search by clinical condition (only 18 percent), sex of physician (only 4 percent), hospital affiliation (54 percent), languages spoken (11 percent), or, perhaps the most important criteria, insurance accepted (only 32 percent).”

Many people who are looking for a doctor, particularly depending on what they would like to see a doctor for, have a preference as to their doctor’s gender. Hospital affiliation also is important, as many people prefer one hospital over another when it comes to surgeries or other procedures.

Related: Women Make Better Doctors Than Men, Study Suggests

Most physician websites contained just seven written reviews. The authors randomly searched the sites for 600 pre-selected physicians from Boston, Portland, Ore. and Dallas.

“Given the demand by consumers for information about physicians, other methods for publishing patient feedback are being developed, and some health systems are beginning to report quantitative reviews and narratives drawn from patient experience surveys,” the authors concluded. “Because of the scarcity of reviews on commercial sites, one of these other methods of publishing patient feedback may emerge as the dominant route by which patients seek reviews about physicians. Methods that use systematic data collection (e.g., surveys) 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.”

In the meantime, Consumer Reports offers these tips when looking for a doctor:

Tip #1: Look for board certification.

“Being certified through the American Board of Medical Specialties means a doctor has earned a medical degree from a qualified medical school, completed three to seven years of accredited residency training, is licensed by a state medical board, and has passed on or more exams administered by a member of the ABMS,” Consumer Reports advises.

And no, not all doctors are certified. To see whether a doctor is certified, go to certificationmatters.org. The site does require you to register.

Tip #2: Ask about drug reps.

Does your doctor allow Pharma reps to call their office and push certain medications? Maybe you have seen these well-dressed, sharp-looking types sitting in your doctor’s waiting room with a briefcase. These reps not only take up doctor time that could be spent seeing patients, but also influence doctors to use certain medications that may not be right for everyone. Ask a doctor point-blank if they allow Pharma reps to call upon them.

Tip #3: Inquire about specific policies.

Ask the staff about wait times, appointment cancellation policies and scheduling. If they flat-out tell you it can take two weeks to get in to see the doctor, you might want to think about going someplace else. Most people don’t have two weeks to wait when they’re not feeling up to par.

Related: Doctors Are Spending More Time Doing Paperwork Than Actually Seeing Patients

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”