Online physician ratings biased, study finds

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Patients are likely to exaggerate their opinions about physicians in online reviews, according to a new article to be presented at the Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) conference in Montreal, Quebec on June 20.

More than half of U.S. adults (59 percent) look up health information online with 16 percent of them reading rankings or reviews of providers, according to researchers, citing a 2010 Pew Internet and Life Project survey.

"Patients need high quality information about the most consequential service that they consume: healthcare," said Ritu Agarwal, professor of information systems and director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, in an INFORMS press release. "They want and need to be able to make informed choices."

With growing popularity of online physician reviews, such as Angie's List, healthgrades.com, RateMDs.com, Vitals.com, and Yelp.com, patients can post their satisfaction or dissatisfaction levels of providers, quality of care, and overall patient experience.

Supporters tout the benefits of such online reviews, applauding increased transparency and accountability. However, physicians, including the American Medical Association, have long argued that such online reviews are biased, worrying that a small minority of disgruntled patients voice their opinions the loudest, that is, online.

Researchers from the University of Maryland and University of Minnesota examined data from RateMDs.com, consumer advocacy group Consumers' Checkbook, 2007 economic census data, and state medical board websites. They found that patients most often rate providers when they have extremely bad experiences.

"These results suggest that online ratings are more informative when identifying low-quality physicians, but not as effective in discerning high-quality physicians from median ones," according to the press release.

As reimbursements continue to be tied to nationwide quality initiatives, many organizations wonder how such perception data will be factored in.

To learn more:
- read the INFORMS press release
- check out a podcast with study authors

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