By now, most of us are accustomed to online reviews. You might check out Yelp to find a highly rated restaurant nearby, or read reviews of products you’re thinking about buying on sites like Amazon. Maybe you even write online reviews yourself. But what about online sites that rate health care providers? Are you – or your patients – familiar with these sites? And how important are they to doctors and patients?

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that about two-thirds of the general public are aware of online physician rating sites, like Vitals or Healthgrades. This is higher than studies from just a few years ago. Of those who are aware of them, about 36 percent have used these sites.

“Online rating sites have gained popularity, and it’s common for people to use them to look up reviews on things like cars, movies, or restaurants,” said pediatrician David A. Hanauer, M.D., the study’s principal author, in an article for the University of Michigan. “More recently, doctors have become the subject of ratings. And this research shows that awareness is growing about those online doctor ratings.”

How important are online doctor reviews?

Awareness may be increasing, but for the most part the number and quality of online doctor reviews is lacking. While one in five Internet users has consulted online reviews and rankings of health care service providers and treatments, according to The Pew Internet Project, only three to four percent of them have posted a review of a treatment, hospital, or clinician.

Numerous studies confirm that very few people actually post reviews or ratings of their doctors online. The JAMA study found that only five percent of adults surveyed had ever posted ratings or reviews of doctors. This means that one disgruntled patient or glowing review can dramatically skew results. Patients seem to realize this, since most respondents in the JAMA survey didn’t rank online ratings as a top factor. However, the results show some are using the sites to make decisions about choosing a doctor.

So what are the top sites patients are visiting to look up doctor ratings? One study showed that Healthgrades is the most commonly used site, with 43 percent of review users turning there first. Yelp is second most popular, with 34 percent of users starting their doctor searches there. The age of your patients matters, too – Yelp was found to be the most used and perceived as the most trustworthy review site for those age 35 and under.

And the National Poll on Children’s Health has reported that parents under age 30 (44 percent) are more likely than parents 30 or older (21 percent) to think doctor-rating websites are very important.

Ratings less important than other factors

Regardless of how accurate these sites are, doctor-rating sites can influence what health care provider a patient chooses. One article about how patients use doctor reviews found that the majority (62 percent) use online reviews as a first step to find a new doctor; 19 percent use online reviews to validate the choice of a doctor they’ve tentatively selected before making an appointment; and another 19 percent use online reviews to evaluate an existing doctor. The JAMA study found that 35 percent of those who sought ratings in the past year had chosen a doctor due to good ratings and 37 percent had avoided a doctor because of bad ratings.

But researchers also found that reviews are less important to patients than other factors – such as whether a doctor accepts their health insurance (“very important” to 89 percent of respondents) and a convenient office location (“very important” to 59 percent of respondents).

The National Poll on Children’s Health found the numbers to be even higher, with 92 percent of parents rating “accepts my health insurance” as very important and 65 percent rating a convenient office location as very important. This poll found that a doctor’s years of experience and word of mouth also were rated very important, by 52 and 50 percent, respectively.

What can you do about online ratings?

The fact remains that doctor reviews are out there, and patients are making decisions based on them. So do you have any control over your reviews? And should you seek them out from patients? Some experts say yes, and suggest that offering patients incentives to review their doctors on these sites is a smart move. Other say that ratings need to be doctor-driven, citing the examples of providers such as the University of Utah Health Care System that publish their own results of patient-satisfaction surveys online.

Another strategy is to focus on content you create and publish online – such as high-quality patient-education materials you post on your web site, blog, and social media pages. This type of content has been shown to rank highly in search-engine results, and patients will be able to see for themselves that you are knowledgeable, up to date with the latest technology, and a real person, not just a name on a list from their insurance provider. Trust us, that carries more weight than an anonymous Yelp review.

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