Commentary

Online physician reviews and ratings: The good, the bad, and the ugly


 

A recent article on Medscape entitled “Online Reviews Most Important Factor in Choosing a Doctor: Survey” really got me thinking about my online presence. According to the results of a new Press Ganey survey, online reviews and star ratings are the most important factor for consumers when choosing a new health care provider, even more so than the recommendation of another doctor. Almost 85% of the survey respondents said they wouldn’t make an appointment with a referred provider if they had a rating of less than 4 stars.

To be honest, I’ve rarely thought about my ratings or online reviews, and I almost never enter my own name into a web browser to see what might emerge. I don’t use most popular social media apps, I don’t have a professional website, and I was completely late in joining LinkedIn. After considering the Press Ganey survey results, though, I’m wondering how many patients (or potential patients) have found me online. And what exactly did they see?

So, I just searched online for my ratings and reviews. There weren’t many direct hits (although I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not). One of the results listed me as a “Fibromyalgia Doctor” at www.lymeforums.org. To be clear, I’m a locum tenens infectious diseases provider with a focus on inpatient consultations and teaching. I couldn’t find any reviews for myself on WebMD, but I had one rating on the Healthgrades website – I was pleased to see someone gave me 5 stars (though there weren’t any comments) until I realized the site listed my address at an ob.gyn. office; I’m not even sure if that rating was meant for me.

Use of the Internet to assess my qualities as a physician is clearly limited, and much of the online information about my specialty and practice sites is completely inaccurate. Yet, according to the Press Ganey survey, the average consumer uses three different websites and reads more than five online reviews before making a provider decision. Once they’ve seen a provider, though, patients rank practice customer service and communication as more important than “bedside manner” when considering a 5-star review. So, it appears that many physician reviews and ratings probably reflect the performance of the office staff, not the provider.

Given the few hits that I encountered when searching my own name, I’m not convinced I need to do anything differently about my online presence; essentially, I don’t really have one. However, there were certainly a lot of other physicians with the same last name as mine who did have impressive numbers of reviews and ratings. One doctor of cosmetic surgery had more than 200 reviews on multiple sites; almost all were positive, but a few patients rated him at 1 or 2 (out of 5) stars, suggesting that patients should find a new surgeon. What does one do about those outliers?

Medicine is indeed a business and patients behave as consumers when searching the web for a health care provider. Another survey has suggested that just one negative review may cause a business to risk losing 22% of its customers, and that multiple bad ratings are even worse – nearly 60% of customers will avoid a business with three or more negative online reviews.

A few years ago, The Washington Post published an article about doctors who were fighting back against bad reviews. Unfortunately, while trying to directly combat inaccuracies, some providers divulged sensitive patient information and suffered the consequences of HIPAA violations. Many legal experts suggest that, in most cases, physicians should restrain from responding publicly to negative online reviews, however tempting it may be to react.

If a negative review is attributed to a specific patient, some lawyers recommend contacting them privately by phone to address their concerns; this may clear the air enough to result in a withdrawal of the negative review or rating. Flagging and reporting fake or unsubstantiated negative reviews (or reviews that violate the Terms of Service of a specific platform) can be done. Consultation with an Internet defamation attorney might be helpful in some circumstances, though hopefully, legal action such as a lawsuit or a cease-and-desist letter can be avoided.

For physicians who do maintain an online presence, engaging with an online reputation management service can help suppress fake or negative reviews while offering strategies for building a better reputation. As for me, I think that I’m grateful my name hasn’t attracted a lot of attention at physician ranking and review sites. I guess we’ll see if it stays that way.

Dr. Devlin is president of Locum Infectious Disease Services, and an independent contractor for Weatherby Healthcare. She has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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