Online ratings sites not popular with consumers

December 24, 2008

Most patients still find their primary care doctors the old-fashioned way -- through word-of-mouth and physician referrals -- despite all the hype that online physician ratings have garnered in recent years, according to a study by a health policy research group.

Most patients still find their primary care doctors the old-fashioned way – through word-of-mouth and physician referrals – despite all the hype that online physician ratings have garnered in recent years, according to a study by a health policy research group.

Just 11 percent of consumers “shopping” for a primary care physician used information from the Internet to help make their choices, according to a study from the Center for Studying Health System Change, which is principally funded by the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In contrast, half of primary care shoppers relied on friends or relatives, 38 percent on doctors or other providers, and 35 percent sought information from health plans, according to the study. Respondents were allowed to select more than one source of information.

“The consumer-directed health care vision of consumers actively shopping is far removed from the reality of how most consumers currently choose health-care providers,” the study says. “Few consumers make use of Internet information sources or price and quality information.”

When shopping for specialists, consumers’ habits change. Nearly 69 percent relied upon primary care physicians for referrals, and just 20 percent sought information from friends and relatives. About 7 percent consulted the Internet.

When considering a choice of primary care physicians, the most-often cited factors among respondents were convenience (67 percent), whether the provider is included in the shoppers’ health plans (67 percent), and the provider’s reputation or perceived quality (66 percent). Cost was much less of a factor, cited by only 29 percent, probably because most insured consumers face no out-of-pocket cost differences when choosing among in-network providers, the study’s authors say.

The authors theorize that few consumers demand quality information because most believe that clinical quality varies little among providers, citing previous research. “For policy makers seeking to engage consumers in provider shopping and quality improvement efforts, a critical challenge is to educate consumers about the existence and the serious implications of provider quality gaps,” the study concludes.