When patients see only stars

Many Americans now use the Internet to gather information, and websites that rate different services and products get a good amount of traffic. Should physicians be among those displayed in a zero- to five-star banner?

A study published this week looked at patients’ use of websites to make decisions about selecting physicians. The researchers found that 65 percent of a nationally represented sample of respondents were aware of physician ratings and of those, 35 percent selected a doctor and 37 percent rejected a doctor based on the reviews. Of those who did not use these online resources, 43 percent cited distrust of the information as a reason.

Review websites have taken a deserved beating. An investigation by the New York attorney general found that fake reviews of all sorts were rampant, both raves paid for by the owning companies and digs compensated by competitors. The discovery prompted a crackdown in 2013.

Of course, cars—which topped the survey for awareness of online reviews at 87 percent—are a commodity and physicians are not. Nomenclature such as calling a patient a customer has raised concerns that medical care is becoming commercialized, which could affect patients’ attitudes.

That some patients would use a review from an unknown source to make an important decision such as selecting a doctor may be alarming. They have alternatives that should be considered accurate and neutral, such as Medicare’s Physician Compare. The federal website has undergone a makeover to be more user friendly—and it is. But the information provided may not meet patients’ needs.

I looked up my primary care physician and discovered he accepts Medicare (I am not there yet but good to know) and participates in federal incentive programs for e-prescribing, using EMRs and the Physician Quality Reporting System. What it didn’t tell me is that he is responsive, thorough, well informed and other attributes that most patients seek.

When asked what factors were important in selecting a primary care physician, 85 percent responded that word of mouth from family or friends was very or somewhat important and 80 percent ranked referral from a physician as very or somewhat important. That is likely because a friend, family member or physician can connect the stars, if you will.

Website reviews are easy to use but they are unlikely to trump human interaction. But in the absence of that human factor, patients may have little choice but to turn to their laptops for guidance.   

Candace Stuart

Cardiovascular Business, editor