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Do online ratings help patients find better doctors?

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Study looks at the effect of patient-generated online ratings on health care choices

Just about everything and everyone gets an online review these days, doctors included. Researchers at Stanford and the University of Washington examined the effect these user-generated online ratings have on health care choices.

The results appear in the Journal of Marketing.

In a connected world, patients increasingly rely on user-generated ratings when it comes to choosing a doctor and making other health care decisions, with surveys showing that almost 75% of patients rely on reviews as the first step in finding a new doctor. But consumers typically lack any specialized knowledge or medical training to fairly evaluate the quality of service provided by physicians, so it’s unknown whether the ratings are a true measure of physician quality and if they influence doctor choice. For example, the American Medical Association has raised concerns that user-generated physician ratings may lack useful information and that the ratings may not reflect actual patient treatment outcomes. However, patients may be able to infer physicians’ clinical quality by observing their own health conditions or by directly assessing physicians’ empathy, attentiveness, and communication skills, according to researchers.

To examine the effect of user-generated ratings, researchers combined physician rating data from Yelp.com with data from Medicare, which cover a large elderly patient group. For those consumers who base their physician choice decisions on online ratings, the findings that physicians with higher ratings have higher clinical quality indicate that patients will be matched with higher-quality physicians.

The study found that physicians with higher ratings have better educational and professional credentials measured by board certification status, ranks of schools, and accreditations. Physicians with higher ratings also show higher adherence to clinical guidelines and patients of physicians with higher ratings display better clinical outcomes. The research authors concluded that online reviews are highly correlated with clinical quality and can help patients find better caregivers.

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Researchers also examined the effects of ratings on patient flow, measured by physician’s revenue and patient volume, and find that an increase in a physician’s average rating has positive effects on patient flow and increases the physician’s annual patient revenue and volume.

The researchers also said that patients’ responses to online ratings are greater for physicians with more reviews. This indicates that ratings would signal more information about a physician’s quality when there are a greater number of reviews. The effects of ratings on patient flow are larger for physicians with more younger patients who have greater access to online rating information. Also, the positive effect of positive online ratings on patient flow is greater for solo practitioners who may lack institutional backing.

For self-employed physicians who are not associated with large hospitals and brand names, good online ratings can provide extra information, help signal quality, and reduce patient uncertainty, according to the report.

The finding that user-generated physician ratings are positively associated with important measures of physician quality highlights that online physician reviews can be a reliable and user-friendly source of information, according to the report’s authors. They also say that it is important for policymakers, physicians, and online rating platforms to create mechanisms that encourage the accumulation of physician ratings to improve the information quality and reliability of rating platforms. Physicians who wish to improve their patient flow should be mindful of online reputation management because reviews about physicians’ interpersonal and clinical skills have significant effects on patients’ physician choices.


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