Should you Believe Online Reviews of Doctors?

By Jennifer Focht, BA

January 2013

Choosing a new physician can be a nerve-wracking task, but thanks to the Internet, information about the doctors you are considering is just a click away.

Many people use reviews and ratings of restaurants, movies, hotels, and products to help decide what to buy. Many web sites offer the same opportunity to read about physicians. Healthgrades.com, RateMDs.com, and DoctorScore.com are just a few that offer patients the opportunity to rate their physicians, and the rest of us the opportunity to see what they said. But, as is true for many online ratings of products or services – especially those that are anonymous, some of the people doing the rating are wildly enthusiastic and some are scathing. How much should you trust online reviews of doctors, and can you make sense of an enormous range of ratings for the same doctor?

Who posts online reviews?

Thirty-four percent of young adults use online ratings to choose a doctor compared with just 19% of seniors.1 Of those who do use these websites, only 6-8% say they have posted a review of their experience with a doctor. 2The vast majority of people do not rate or review their physicians on the Internet, so if you rely on these ratings you will have no information on the quality of care received by over 90% of patients.

What do reviews say?

Some reviews contain general statements about the patient’s experience or impression of his doctor (“He is wonderful”), while others comment more specifically on the doctor’s competence (“She mis-prescribed a medicine I’ve been taking for years”) and bedside manner (“She makes embarrassing things not embarrassing”). 3 Some reviews even offer opinions on the patient’s experience beyond the care directly provided by the physician, such as comments on the office, staff, and availability of appointments. 4 Most physician reviews on the Internet are positive,5 but one study found that patients are most likely to post a review after a negative experience with the doctor. 6 In general, people who respond to surveys on any topic, whether online, over the phone, or in writing are most likely to be the ones that feel most strongly about the subject, either positively or negatively. So, you’re most likely to see those extreme comments, and less likely to see neutral or lukewarm evaluations.

According to a recent study, individual doctors have an average of less than 3 reviews each (and some have no reviews at all). 7 Because each doctor has so few reviews, you can’t assume that the reviews accurately represent how most patients feel about the doctor. In addition, one extremely negative or extremely positive review can have a misleading impact on the doctor’s average rating.

Finally, it is important to remember that there is no guarantee that any review contains accurate information. 8 Just because an anonymous person posts that a particular physician is terrible (or great) doesn’t mean it is true. There is no way to control a doctor’s friend or family member from giving a great rating, or a competitor from giving a terrible rating. (Keep that in mind for restaurant and hotel reviews as well!) And, patients may rate on things that have nothing to do with the quality of their medical expertise, such as how nice they are or how long they had to wait past their scheduled appointment. Worse yet, some patients might give a poor rating to a physician who is actually providing excellent care, such as a doctor who refuses to prescribe an antibiotic for a cold or the flu (The Facts About Medication for Colds and the Flu). But, if there are many ratings that seem similar, or a clear pattern (such as numerous people posting weeks or months apart that they waited a long time to see the doctor), then you may want to take that into consideration.

Bottom Line:

Online reviews of doctors should only be taken seriously if there are many reviews and a clear “trend” in the comments (for instance, most reviewers complained about the receptionist but felt the doctor really listened to them). Even then, the reviews probably can’t tell you about the quality of medical care you will get unless the reviewers are knowledgeable and provide specific information that you can judge for yourself. Until you visit a doctor for the first time and see for yourself, there is limited information you can gather. And, just because a doctor went to a well-respected medical school doesn’t mean he or she has a good bedside manner or is punctual. If your doctor is a specialist, you will want to check that he is Board-certified (you can check here), but after that, the best information you can get about a doctor is from a patient you know personally and who has the expertise to make an accurate judgment. If you need to use online reviews, keep in mind all the limitations of that information.

  1. Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. 2011 survey of heath consumers in the United States: Key findings, strategic implications. Available at: http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/US_CHS_2011ConsumerSurveyinUS_062111.pdf.  
  2. Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. 2011 survey of heath consumers in the United States: Key findings, strategic implications. Available at: http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/US_CHS_2011ConsumerSurveyinUS_062111.pdf.  
  3. López, A, Detz, A, Ratanawongsa, N, Sakar, U. What patients say about their doctors online: A qualitative content analysis. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 2012; 27(6): 685-692.  
  4. López, A, Detz, A, Ratanawongsa, N, Sakar, U. What patients say about their doctors online: A qualitative content analysis. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 2012; 27(6): 685-692.  
  5. Kadry, Bassam, Chu, LF, Kadry, Bayan, Gammas, D, Macario, A. Analysis of 4999 online physician ratings indicates that most patients give physicians a favorable rating. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2011; 13(4): e95.  
  6. Rating site accurate for worst doctors. Healthcare Leadership Review. 2011; 30(9): 13.  
  7. Ellimoottil, C, Hart, A, Greco, K, Quek, ML, Farooq, A. Online reviews of 500 Urologists. The Journal of Urology. 2012; doi: 10.1016/j.juro.2012.12.013.  
  8. Ellimoottil, C, Hart, A, Greco, K, Quek, ML, Farooq, A. Online reviews of 500 Urologists. The Journal of Urology. 2012; doi: 10.1016/j.juro.2012.12.013.