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On-line Doctor Reviews: Are They Trustworthy?

April 28, 2013

I‘m sitting down one night reviewing the credentials of a physician I know to be a duplicitous character who was just arrested for allegedly selling prescription pain medications, opiates, to any drug seeker who could pay him. He was well known to doctors and hospital administrators to be a meretricious fellow and yet, if you read the patient reviews posted on any number of physician review sites, you might get the impression that he was an “excellent doctor” and a “dedicated physician”.

I continued to review physicians I know to be gaming the system and hurting patients, and yet many of them received spectacular ratings from their patients. I wondered how this could be, for about five seconds, until I realized these docs were likely working these on-line rating services as much as they were taking advantage of their patients and gaming the healthcare system.

There are many doctor rating sites on-line that appear to generate revenue through ads placed on the site or by a fee doctors pay so that they can be a sponsored or recommended physician.

I decided to go to these sites and began with www.Healthgrades.com. They claim to be the leading independent health care ratings company. I went to my name, typed in my review of myself (gave myself a good rating) and noted it posted shortly after. Hmm.

I then went to another site called Vitals.com. I posted a review of myself to see if this was at all vetted. I wrote, “Born in upper Mongolia, he lived with the chimps for one hundred years. Then after a bite from a snake he was transformed into a man from Brooklyn. Use caution on all these sites.” A few moments later my review was posted.

UComparehealthcare.com is another site where anyone, that likely includes friends or even the doctor, can post whatever they wish, even if they never visited the doctor. And again, this site collects revenue from physicians who wish to be a “featured” doctor.

Zocdoc.com provides reviews of physicians who sign a contract with them. Doctors that pay for this service are featured on their site and patients can even book appointments directly through Zocdoc. If a physician does not subscribe, he is not featured — it costs $250 dollars a month to be a featured physician. I spoke to a representative at this site who told me that a doctor “was not required to be board certified in his field to be recommended.” In my opinion, the first question any patient should ask is whether a physician is board certified, and if the answer is no — consider another option.

One good thing about Zocdoc.com, in my opinion, is that even though featured doctors are suggested because they pay a hefty fee, and not because of their credentials or quality of care, it appears to be one of the few sites where patient reviews are actually vetted and certified by their staff. In one review, even though the doctor was a client and paying his hefty fee, I did notice critical and quite derogatory reviews; one of which included the following: “absolutely horrible. my xrays were taken as soon as I got there but then they sent me back in the waiting room for 3 hours!! This process was done for everyone. There were a ton of people in the waiting room and every time someone asked the receptionist how much longer, he told them 15-20 minutes (which was a complete lie). do not waste your time here!!”

Doctor rating sites appear to be a useful tool for naïve people who are searching for a qualified physician, but there is no vetting of patient recommendations and sometimes the worst and most dangerous physicians appear to be the best. For most of these sites, all any physician needs to do, and it seems many have, is to either ask friends to post great reviews for them or even post their own review.

As for the review at www.vitals.com, I was not born in Mongolia and I did not live with chimps for one hundred years, but I am from Brooklyn.


Dr. Evan S. Levine is a cardiologist in New York and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center – Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is also the author of the book “What Your Doctor Won’t (or can’t) Tell You”. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children.


One Response to On-line Doctor Reviews: Are They Trustworthy?

  1. Claudio Teri on March 26, 2014 at 3:45 am

    Dr. Levine,

    First of all thanks for the valuable article.

    My company collects and displays doctor reviews in the US through the website drsocial.org and I would like to highlight some parts of your article that I found really interesting.

    The first element to analize is the number of reviews.
    They are the most important element for the correct functionality of a review website. Business model associated with review based websites works well with big data. Once you have lots of reviews about a doctor you can identify patterns in professional behaviour that you will not spot with few. For this reason it should be a very positive change if doctors will actually start recommending patients to write about their experience.

    Hotel and restaurant owners on Tripadvisor have understood that a review is a customer feedback that can improve quality of service. An anonymous review written in good faith is a great source of information for the practice or the MD to understand if there are any issues with their service. You have to take in the equation that you might find reviews of unhappy patients that were expecting to receive certain prescriptions and they didn’t because they were not the right ones and the doctor did right not to prescribe them. You may also find unsatisfied customers on Tripadvisor expecting to much from the hotel they have chosen. But then again, misleading can become a tool of communication instead of a cold judgement. Giving the opportunity to the doctor to publicly respond to the review allows him to clarify how certain medicines should only be prescribed to fight certain pathologies or similar topics. This way the doctor shows that he stands by his decision, gives a motivation for it, adds valuable content for future users and credibility for himself.

    Another important element that should be considered is the gratuity of the service. Everyone should be allowed to sign up a free account, either doctors or patients. The service in itself has such an important value for the community that it should not be fair to ask money in order to understand which doctor can help you in a better way. Doctors, on the other side, should not pay because they should have the right to respond to the review and update their profile data for free. There can be some sort of upgraded accounts for doctors who want to be featured, however a standard free account should be available. Website can monetize with additional services or banner ads might be developed but it’s crucial for these sites’ success to keep the environment free.

    In regards to your tests on other websites, I can assure you that if you try to write a similar review on drsocial.org, your review will not be published. All our reviews are manually verified in order to avoid what you described in your article. This process has an economical impact on the company but it does guarantee that only valuable and honest reviews are published. It would have been a much easier journey for us if we were simply publishing every review: you get a lot of unique user generated content, great SEO etc… but at the end of the day the question is: what is the added value you are bringing to the community? Not much in our opinion.

    I believe that review websites will become a strong asset in the healthcare community during the next few years and it is also important to plan how much we want to help the healthcare system. DrSocial for example, decided to donate $1 to the Colon Cancer Alliance for every sign up on our website: http://www.ccalliance.org/help/shop_services.html
    Converting marketing costs into medical research funds should be part of a health related site and ongoing cuts to research funds can be mitigated through a wise allocation of resources.
    My conclusion is that doctor review websites will become an asset in the healthcare community when they focus on content value rather than traffic volumes.
    Thanks for the opportunity to express my opinion.

    Best Regards
    Claudio Teri

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