The ability of patients to evaluate physicians online is a reality that all doctors must face. This process, however inaccurate or imperfect, is an example of a much larger phenomenon in society — the "crowd-sourcing" of opinion when it comes to ascribing value to something. In this case, the "something" is medical practice and more specifically, the physician participating in it.
There are a number of challenges that come with current online rating systems. Primarily, there is the question of accuracy and anonymity — is there verification that the person providing commentary is actually a patient and actually referring to events that transpired? While one would like to believe that no one would ever post false information, the reality is that the "anonymity of the Internet" allows less scrupulous individuals to potentially use rating sites for other, more personal reasons.
Currently, only two major sites claim to have "verified patient" ratings (DoctorBase and ZocDoc). Unfortunately, more well-known sites such as Healthgrades and Vitals.com have yet to adopt this philosophy across their enterprises. Without such verification of accuracy, doctors will always be left questioning if what has been reported is based on real or questionable information.
Another major concern is how rating sites work. Interestingly, rating sites primarily allow one to search by doctor, yet the ratings provided may be related to things that are not necessarily reflective of the individual, but possibly the practice. While still important (physicians may be able to get good feedback about weak aspects of their practice), the simplistic ratings system may cause patients to ascribe the problem to the physicians themselves, especially given the fact that reviews may be quickly looked at (i.e. looking at the overall rating, but not the specific commentary, if even provided).
This doesn't mean these sites or the concept of rating physicians is bad, per se. There is value to be found for the humble and open-minded physician. As mentioned above, a doctor may identify issues about the practice that he was previously unaware of. Anonymity, for better or for worse, allows people to speak without fear of retaliation by the physician or staff. Studies have shown that physicians with "good" ratings have increased traffic to their practice due to these rating sites.
Perhaps most importantly, physicians will start to gain a better understanding of what patients might actually care about. As many of us in the field come to learn, quality medical care (which we all wish to provide) is an assumption by the patient. They do not rate us based on this — they assume and expect it will happen. Instead, the difference between an average and excellent rating might have more to do with the intangibles: the ability to demonstrate compassion and empathy; the ability to explain medical problems in simple language; and the ability to demonstrate respect for the patient — even if what they wish to do isn't what we believe is the best choice.
Once we better start to understand what our patients value, we can truly start to connect with them in ways they will value. If this is an outcome of online doctor ratings, perhaps we (as a profession) will become better at being professional.
Saroj Misra, DO, FACOFP, is an osteopathic physician based in Warren, Mich. He is also a member of the Physicians Practice Physician Advisory Board. Do you believe that physicians need to be concerned with online rating sites? Tell us at [email protected]. Unless you say otherwise, we'll assume that we're free to publish your comments in print and online.
This article was originally published in the January 2016 issue of Physicians Practice.