DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’ve recently moved and would like to find a doctor for my kids and myself. I don’t know many people here yet, so I’ve hesitated to ask for personal recommendations. What do you think about physician-rating websites?
There are a lot of doctor rating sites out there, like Healthgrades.com or RateMDs.com. Even websites that offer reviews of restaurants and repairmen (such as Yelp and Angie’s List) feature critiques of doctors, dentists and other clinicians.
Many of these sites have users give doctors a “star rating,” as you would rate a movie on Netflix. But according to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, narrative reviews, in which patients describe their experiences with clinicians in their own words, can add valuable context. They can allow readers to zero in on reviews from people with similar problems, needs and preferences. And if you understand why someone gave a clinician a certain score, you can weigh that information against what’s most important to you.
But even doctor-rating websites that provide space for personal comments — and many do — could, in my opinion, be improved. Many of these websites don’t present data on other important considerations. For example, does the doctor offer timely appointments? Does he or she follow authoritative guidelines for preventing and treating diseases? Do they follow up on recently discovered medical problems that need close monitoring?
In addition, most of the existing websites post comments from any source. There’s no assurance that the reviews come from real or recent patients. Furthermore, the vast majority of doctors’ patients don’t offer their evaluations on doctor-rating websites. And the few that do often have an ax to grind.
Also in my opinion, there are a few doctors who have a great “bedside manner” but don’t practice the best medicine. They order too many, or too few, diagnostic tests. They use the newest treatments when older treatments would be equally effective, less expensive and possibly safer. I say older drugs are safer because we know more about the safety of drugs that have been around for a while. Having said this, I think patients usually make accurate judgments about their doctors.
So what’s the bottom line? Doctor-rating websites might provide some useful information. But don’t use them as your only source of information. If you can, ask trusted friends or family members. If you’re new to an area, as you are in this case, join a neighborhood email group and ask for a recommendation. Or call the local chapter of a condition-specific association and ask them for suggestions.
Of course, it makes the most sense to trust the judgments of people whom you know and respect. But you can learn something from people you don’t know, and who may be anonymous on the ratings website. All the time, we hear people we don’t know making judgments about things. We decide from what they’ve said and how they’ve said it whether we believe them. It’s no different with doctor-rating websites.