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Do you rely on ratings websites to choose a doctor? If so, how reliable is that information?

You can find reviews for any business – from restaurants to dog groomers. Healthcare is a bit more sensitive, and there has been much debate over the usefulness of online doctor ratings.

Some sites have been accused of manipulating reviews based on whether the doctor is a paid subscriber. There are website algorithms that are designed to push out certain reviews without a clear explanation. Part of the debate has centered on the validity of ratings on a for-profit versus nonprofit ratings site. It’s not always obvious how these websites work, so here are a few things to keep in mind before you click.

Is the review from an actual patient? Reviews are usually from a patient, and sometimes a patient’s family member. Fake reviews do exist. Like a business looking to hurt a competitor, or artificially pump up their own reputation. Most, if not all, ratings sites claim they don’t allow this. Something else to consider: if it’s a negative review, was the patient being fair? People have bad days, and unfortunately so do medical practices. This isn’t always a true assessment of the doctor, which leads us to the next tip.

How many reviews does the doctor have? Let’s say a doctor has three 5-star ratings, and two 2-star ratings. Is that enough to really know about that doctor? Obviously only negative or positive reviews does say something. Considering doctors treat thousands of patients each year, do even 10 or 12 reviews tell the whole story?

Do doctors pay for their own reviews? In other words, is the site manipulating reviews based on who does or doesn’t pay to join? This can be illegal, and is always unethical. A credible doctor wouldn’t knowingly do this.

A recent study* found that online “star” ratings may not accurately represent the quality of care patients receive. The study, conducted by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), was based on 1,299 doctors that completed a Practice Improvement Module in diabetes or hypertension treatment.

The study reviewed patient survey responses and medical records related to outcome and experience. This was compared against ratings those doctors received on eight leading rating websites that are publicly available and free.

According to the AIM study: “the comparison found that there was no statistically significant association between the online ratings given by patients about their physicians and the clinical quality of care delivered in their practices.” Doctors who participated had an average of 5 to 6 online ratings.

While this related to patients with diabetes and hypertension, the study suggests that online reviews aren’t necessarily the only measure of the quality of care a doctor provides.

Online ratings may provide a snapshot of a particular doctor. But when it comes to your health, it’s always good to ask around after you’ve clicked around.

*Source: American Board of Internal Medicine