By NIRAN AL AGBA, MD
You may have heard that before you pick a doctor you are supposed to look them up online and see what other people have to say about them before you set up an appointment.
In the Age of Amazon this makes sense. Why wouldn’t you?
Allow me to give you a little insider information. While they may well be a good idea in theory, Yelp.com and other online physician review sites have evolved in recent years to become the bane of my and fellow doctors existence.
This past summer, Physicians Working Together, a non-partisan physician organization, started a petition on Change.org requesting Yelp remove online reviews of doctors. To date, more than 30,000 physicians have signed it but I doubt Yelp will pay much attention.
Recently, the highest-level court in Germany ruled Jameda, an online physician rating site, must remove the name of a disgruntled physician. A dermatologist from Cologne filed the case in the Federal Justice Court demanding Jameda remove her name due to the fact the anonymous nature of the rating site inspires the public to leave spiteful, vindictive comments. Interestingly enough, in 2014, a gynecologist asked to be removed from Jameda, however the Court ruled the right of patients to be “well informed” about their doctor took precedence over freedoms of the physician.
What is the value of rating physicians online? Are consumers becoming “well-informed?”
Patient advocates would argue rating sites for physicians improve transparency for consumers. Physicians would counter with the argument that a medical clinic is not like a restaurant, hair salon, or shopping mall. We engage in a highly personal way with the public that is quite different from sitting down for a meal. The larger concern is whether or not Yelp.com patrons are actually “well-informed” by reading online physician reviews.
After a little research, it appears the answer is no. I used a local medical community as an example. The reviews overall are not very good; on average the medical clinics are 3.0/5.0 stars. Some reviews extol on physical appearance of the physician, be they female or male. One reviewer discusses being offended by seeing a transgender physician, an element which has little to do with the provision of medical services. At first glance, one might believe moving to Kitsap County, WA is akin to choosing between life and death. Rest assured, most of the populace is alive and well.
Online reviews are not a reflection of medical care quality. Patients do not like receiving medical bills and do not like rude clinic staff. They are unhappy if the physician disagrees with them, they abhor long wait times, and they detest prior authorizations, (news flash, so do physicians!) Yet these criticisms are not a reflection of the healthcare quality provided by the physician. It is doubtful these grievances even have an impact on the mortality rate.
According to “well informed” consumers, which qualities make a physician “good”?
Actually, the answer is amusing. It is best if a physician is in fact, not a medical doctor at all. It turns out EVERY naturopathic doctor, homeopathic doctor, chiropractor, and acupuncturist in my community is providing five-star-rated care. One patron gave a few alternative practitioners only one star, but those reviews were more than nine years old; alternative medical practitioners were not as “well-accepted” by a “well-informed” public at that time. As with other service businesses, the internet is unlikely to replace good, old fashioned “word-of-mouth” referrals.
While internet ratings are not an accurate way to measure medical care quality, they are a way for angry individuals to air grievances, whether those are truth, lies, fiction, or somewhere in between. For example, a one-star rating was left by a woman who did not like the way a staff member answered the phone at one clinic; she went on to give 5 one-star ratings to other physicians nearby at other clinics. Interestingly enough, googling her name brings up a Yelp.com review describing her as having borderline personality disorder.
What is the public being informed of exactly? Not much. Physicians may have difficulty responding to patient reviews without compromising protected health information, ultimately rendering them defenseless. If the goal is to keep everyone accountable, where is the balance between physicians and consumers? Should physicians have a database to rate patients? Accountability is where the rubber meets the road and it cannot be found in online reviews of physicians. Ironically, the lawyers in my community have very solid 5.0-star ratings, that is, unless they delivered a summons, then they were given a 1.0-star rating.
Yelp and other physician rating sites should remove the physician reviews entirely because these entities are selling something they cannot deliver. Until a physician wins a case against Yelp, Google, or another physician rating site, it seems wise to give every patient exactly what they ask for, never argue or tell them the truth, hire staff members who are like Mary Poppins and “practically perfect in every way”, and prioritize timely visits no matter if a patient is dying in the next room.
Is it any wonder the U.S. mortality rate continues to fall?