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Online physician reviews are met with distrust among medical professionals

Patients tend to trust reviews, while physicians don't, and the physicians just may be right.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Online consumer reviews play an important role in almost every consumer industry – from dining and shopping, to travel and technology. But what do online reviews of physicians tell consumers?

In a new study, researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas investigated whether patient-generated online reviews of physicians accurately reflect the quality of care.

While many patients utilize online reviews to decide which physicians they should see, some physicians have become wary of review websites, with some even filing defamation lawsuits over negative patient reviews. In short, patients tend to trust the reviews, while physicians don't.

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WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

Publishing in Information Systems Research, the team examined the relationship between online reviews of physicians and their patients' actual clinical outcomes. They wanted to know how much consumers can rely on the reviews, specifically in regard to chronic disease care.

Prior research on online reviews of physicians is rather limited and does not cover chronic diseases in general. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90% of the $3.5 trillion that the U.S. spends annually on healthcare goes toward patients with chronic conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and long-term mental health issues.

By definition, chronic diseases are treatable but not curable – which makes care for such ailments a contrast to acute care, such as surgery to fix a broken leg. Performance on acute care procedures tends to be cut-and-dried: The physician did a good job fixing the broken leg or they didn't. Chronic diseases, with no visible benchmark for recovery, require care that is often more difficult to rank.

Add the fact that a person with a chronic disease may see several physicians over years, and that various social and economic factors oftentimes influence chronic disease treatment outcomes, it becomes apparent that writing accurate reviews is even more challenging for a patient.

Researchers used that as a basis for study, examining whether chronic disease patients' reviews can be informative, objective and trustworthy.

They examined 10 years of COPD patient admission-discharge data for hospitals in North Texas, tracking each patient's clinical journey spanning multiple physicians. They also studied online reviews of physicians on one of the ranking websites and scored the overall sentiments expressed in the text of each review in addition to considering the accompanying star ratings.

For chronic diseases, they found that online reviews do not reliably indicate the quality of care provided by a physician, as measured in terms of readmission risk and other similar broadly accepted clinical outcomes. Both the star ratings and text reviews were found to be equally uninformative about the actual quality of care.

This was a break from previous results finding that online reviews are generally useful to prospective consumers, perhaps because previous research did not hone in on the credence and objectivity of such reviews.

The team recommends that consumers reduce their overreliance on physician-review sites. While reviews may provide some information, such as whether the staff is courteous, they are not necessarily reliable indicators of the quality of care.

The study also has implications for healthcare administrators, since some hospitals link physicians' compensation to the quality of patient care. The message for hospitals is that online reviews aren't necessarily the best proxy for quality, and that even hospital-administered surveys may have similar issues.

THE LARGER TREND

A poll released in January found online physician ratings don't hold as much sway among people over the age of 50, who tend to use the most healthcare. In all, 43% of people between the ages of 50 and 80 said they had looked up a doctor online to see how others rated him or her, or what was said in their reviews. One-third of them had done so at least once in the past year.

What mattered more to older Americans than the number of stars a doctor received online? According to the poll, 61% said the wait time for an appointment was very important, and about 40% said the same about recommendations from other doctors or the physician's level of experience.

Meanwhile, a December 2019 analysis of online Yelp reviews found that, while doctors, hotels and restaurants each average a 3.5-star rating out of five stars possible on the business review website, a doctor is 64% more likely to receive a five-star review but 194% more likely to receive a one-star review. The data suggests that while people's experiences with doctors are distinctly polarizing, their expectations of restaurants and hotels are more nuanced.

The good news for providers, though, is that doctors' online reviews do not rate generally better or worse than other businesses. Rather, the polarizing effects of a disappointing patient experience are more dangerous to medical practices than other businesses.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com