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Think online doctor reviews are “digital soapboxes” for angry patients?

por Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter | June 22, 2015
Health IT
The most dissatisfied customers are usually the most outspoken on online rating sites, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the health care industry. A new study from the University of Maryland found that physicians who ranked poorly on government patient satisfaction surveys received fewer online ratings than physicians who did well.

"The concern that ratings aggregation sites will become digital soapboxes for disgruntled patients appears to be unfounded," wrote the researchers.

The researchers compared the ratings of 1,425 physicians in Denver, Kansas City and Memphis on the website, RateMDs.com, with thorough patient satisfaction surveys designed by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

They found that there was a connection between the online ratings and the patient satisfaction surveys, which suggests that the online ratings represent a wide range of the patient population. The findings are surprising because in other industries, dissatisfied customers are usually the most vocal, according to the researchers.

They believe that this could be because patients with the worst physicians may have less access to the Internet or be less familiar with online rating websites. They also hypothesize that patients are concerned that physicians may get revenge if they leave negative reviews or that they might evaluate health care in a different way than they evaluate products on Amazon, for example.

Online rating websites are becoming increasingly popular and gaining more credibility among patients — 37 percent of patients have used the websites to select a physician.

The researchers did caution that the study was restricted because it only evaluated patient satisfaction, opposed to objective measures of patient outcomes or protocols physicians follow. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in February 2015 found that there are few statistically significant connections between patient ratings on eight websites and objective performance measures involving 1,299 internists.

“This is what we should keep in mind: A very high score in patient satisfaction is not wholly connected with clinical quality,” Gordon Gao, co-author of the study and associate professor at the university, said in a statement. “If you want to use the online ratings to infer how good a doctor is clinically, take them with a grain of salt.”

CMS is currently working on an online resource called Physician Compare Initiative that will enable patients to compare data on physicians’ health care outcomes. However, physicians are skeptical because they doubt it will be possible to account for the general health of a physician’s patients and whether the patients follow the physician’s recommendations.

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