Online doctor reviews: not what the doctor ordered

You can find a new tapas restaurant online, compare reviews for the latest video series and maybe even find a spouse, but online review sites are not the place to find a new doctor, a study finds. The study looked at how top physicians in five specialties did on popular review sites like Yelp, Vitals and Healthgrades and the answer does not do much to inspire confidence.

Only 2 percent of the doctors who are actually ranked at the top of their profession in terms of patient outcomes did well in the online ratings, which were more often based on such things as whether the receptionist was friendly, whether there was convenient parking and how long the patient had to wait.

“This research confirms what we have long suspected,” explains David Hines, CEO of ConsumerMedical, the health concierge company that conducted the survey. “Online patient reviews tend to reflect a patient’s care experiences, such as the physician’s bedside manner. While these attributes are important, they are simply not the main indicators of a physician’s overall quality; sadly you can have a very kind orthopedic surgeon whose patients have hospital readmission rates that are through the roof.”

The online ratings did not generally reflect actual physician performance on variables including patient readmission rates, surgical infection rates, average length of stay, procedure volume, and patient outcomes.

“Getting care from a high-quality physician can literally be a matter of life and death,” said Hines. “This absence of consumer-friendly tools that help the public understand that quality matters, and that offer them meaningful quality information so they can choose a high-quality physician, is very problematic.”

To conduct the survey, researchers identified the top 10 ranked physicians across five common specialties in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles on the three popular patient review websites. They then compared these lists to a list of the 10 physicians with the highest quality scores (by specialty) in these same cities.

Little consistency

Other studies have also found serious problems with online doctor reviews. A study conducted by researchers at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery found very little consistency in the ratings displayed by different sites, leading to questions about the credibility of those ratings. In fact, there study found it was “debatable whether these websites in their current form truly capture patient satisfaction and objectively evaluate the delivery of care,” said Benedict Nwachukwu, M.D., who presented the findings at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Annual Meeting in San Diego in March 2017.

The researchers studied ratings on,, and and found “a low degree of correlation in ratings for individual surgeons on the different websites.” That, said Nwachukwu, is an important finding that had not been previously demonstrated.

The sites, said Anil Ranawat, MD, senior investigator for the study, may be good businesses but whether they’re truly useful for consumers is questionable.

“Online rating websites are for-profit business enterprises, which at this point demonstrate significant growth potential,” Ranawat said. “However, the low degree of correlation between these websites is concerning. It also questions the collective utility of these sites and potentially demonstrates the individually capricious

Stress levels

For their part, doctors say the online reviews do little but add to their stress level. In a study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, doctors were more supportive of reviews and other information on health system websites — those operated by hospitals and other institutions — than on consumer-targeted sites like Vitals and

The study shows a stark split in the preferences of health professionals and health consumers. Doctors were more likely to trust information on health system websites more, while independent sites were the preferred go-to source for patients.

“Patients may lack trust in health system websites due to concerns regarding bias, as these publish reviews regarding their own physicians,” said researcher Alison Holliday. “Health systems seeking to publish patient experience survey data will therefore need to engage patients in their trust of what is very likely a new and complicated data source to them.”



About the Author

James R. Hood
James R. Hood is the editor and publisher of A former Associated Press editor and executive, he has more than 50 years of reporting experience.