Though many doctors fear that that a few bad online reviews could hurt their reputation, a study published recently in the Journal of Urology finds that most ratings are favorable--but based on reviews by just two or three patients.
"Our findings suggest that consumers should take these ratings with a grain of salt," lead author Chandy Ellimoottil said in a statement.
Researchers from the Loyola University Medical Center studied reviews of 500 urologists--471 males and 29 females--on sites such as Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com, and RateMDs.com. They found nearly 80 percent were rated on one of 10 free physician-review websites, reports PsychCentral. The number of reviews per site ranged from zero to 64, with the average being 2.4.
The researchers found 86 percent of physicians had positive ratings, while 36 percent had highly positive ratings. Rated on a scale from 0 to 1, the median score for male doctors was 0.81 while female doctors were rated 0.82, according to Urology Times.
They also rated written comments on the site, finding 3 percent extremely negative, 22 percent negative, 22 percent neutral, 39 percent positive and 14 percent extremely positive.
"The biggest stumbling block at present for these sites to really be useful for patients is just the very limited number of reviews that exist," Peter Lindenauer of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., told Reuters Health. "You need to be aware that these websites are not regulated--there's no verification that the patients were actually patients."
As patient satisfaction gains importance with Meaningful Use, doc-rating sites are proliferating, including from Consumer Reports, but Lindenauer described the landscape as "a bit of a mess, with a large number of competing sites."
While a study of reviews posted on the website of the British National Health Service linked positive reviews with low death rates, research from the University of California-Davis found higher death rates and higher costs among patients who rated themselves as most satisfied with their doctors. That study, though not based on online reviews, concluded it's not always best to give patients everything they want.
Meanwhile, a study of online physician reviews from the University of California-San Francisco found poor reviews were more likely to stem from complaints about administrative shortcomings, such as inadequate parking, rude staff or excessive wait times than the doctor's care.