The following is a guest post written by PilgrimTinker (a pseudonym for a consumer health information librarian who regularly blogs at Learn to Live.
So, you need to see a doctor. Or, you have been seeing a doctor for some time and love her, or can’t stand her, or secretly suspect him of not paying appropriate attention to your complaints or wonder if he knows anything about geriatrics. Whatever the initial question, you decide to google him. And you discover that there are dozens of physician rating websites available, ready to help you dig up dirt or make a choice or trash a reputation.
Have you guessed yet that I am feeling ambivalent about these sites? I am. On one hand, it makes perfect sense to be able to research a physician or facility before you choose them for your health care. It’s responsible health care consumerism. On the other hand, doctors aren’t used cars and the complexity of medicine and the nature of the relationship between a patient and a physician cannot be portrayed with a simple matrix.
With these considerations aside, another difficulty in assessing physician rating websites is the large number and variety of choices. Here I offer a sampling, by no means exhaustive but more of a snapshot. I’ve looked at many more and chosen these as fairly representative.
First, there are physician directories, offered by government sources or various medical associations. These will verify an affiliation or specialty, board certifications, and contact information. They don’t offer much or anything in the way of user satisfaction but will verify professional credentials and provide a list of practitioners in a geographic area or at a particular facility. For a good start finding this kind of directory, try MedlinePlus GoLocal, the US Dept of Health and Human Service’s HospitalCompare or the AMA’s DoctorFinder.
Now for that more problematic category, the sites that encourage patients to publish their opinions and experiences and to surf what others have already posted. Let’s take a look at a few.
RateMDs.com makes posting ratings very easy- no need to sign in or create an account. The comments are completely anonymous, though they are read by the moderators and may be removed or edited. This is a fairly common policy on physician rating sites. The site uses a smiley face system, based on 2 questions: Is the doctor helpful and Is the doctor knowledgeable.
The downfall of this simplicity is that the faces become meaningless; as demonstrated by the comments for an obstetrician I saw in another city long, long ago. Several can be summed up by “he save my life, we wouldn’t be here if not for him” while others amounted to “he doesn’t answer questions, I would never recommend him, he is uncaring”. The only way I can imagine a site like useful is if there were thousands of comments per physician before they were displayed and the questions were more skillfully stated, allowing the number of responses to create a trend.
DrScore.com is also easy to use and invited me to rank my doctor on a scale of 0 to 10, with an option to post up to 40 words worth of commentary. They encourage raters to note “particularly good things you noticed about the visit” and that “Ratings and comments submitted to DrScore are designed to give feedback to physicians to help them enhance their medical practice.” This is a different and much more positive twist on the usual protect-yourself-by-digging-up-the-dirt approach to promoting physician rating venues. The process included more questions rated 0 to 10 such as time spent with the doctor, if and how well the doctor answered questions, treatment options offered, treatment success and ease of communication with the entire practice. The search works best for those checking ratings of an individual so it took several tries to get a list of physicians in one city to browse by score. The scores are divided into category and displayed on a 0-10 scale, providing a more nuanced profile than RateMD.com’s smilies.
Vitals also allows for consumer ratings of physicians but gathers information from medical boards, federal websites, hospitals, doctors, surveys, business alliances and third party affiliates. I found this search interface to be the easiest to use and the results display very slick. There are several interactive features that actually work, such as a compare box that displays choices side by side and an alert feature for changes to a profile.
Results are divided into sections including specialty, hospital affiliation, education and publications, with links and mapping features.
The rating feature asked only 7 questions with a final overall assessment; asking patients to respond from disagree strongly to agree strongly. This leads to the same limitations as the other sites data, but there are several reasons I like this site better. One is the 360 vitals view, diagrammed on the about us page. It is divided into thirds for empirical information, consumer ratings and peer reviews. The site encourages consumers to think more broadly about what makes a good physician. The search interface and results were much better than any others I’ve seen. Every feature I tried worked as I had hoped, never asking me to sign in, pay for a report or requiring me to use a series of those annoying drop down choice boxes.
But seriously, what about that elusive quality, hotness? Yes, there is a website for that particular aspect of a physician’s fitness to practice and I found it, thanks to an ad on WebMD. PharmaStats promises plenty, including a special icon to alert us when a hot physician has been identified. Unfortunately, the site didn’t deliver- results only included the most basic yellow pages contact information and the chance to “register for more results”
While we are on the subject of unfair or irresponsible ratings, I can’t quite classify The Healthcare Scoop.com. At first, I thought maybe I wasn’t on the home page but found that yes, it is simply a list of random posts with no format at all. Or, as they describe it, “Real, straight-forward information – written and shared by people just like you – about personal healthcare experiences.” Patients simply create an account and post a story, which is then immediately posted. The site also includes ads and a few search features (by doctor, by facility) but doesn’t organize the collected information in any other way.
There are several websites that charge fees for reports about individual physicians, including Angie’s List and HealthGrades, which wanted me to buy a report to see Disciplinary action, board certification, phone numbers and much more! These seem to be the least useful and most likely to prey on those easily frightened by contorted statistics in headlines.
What exactly do you need to know to intelligently choose a doctor? Their clinical proficiency? Quality of their office service? Bedside manner? Personal experiences and biases? What they learned from their first surgery experience and how they responded to their first death? How many journals they read and if they know about the latest advances in medical genomics? What about if they are willing to prescribe antibiotics over the phone for your niece? Will any of these sites allow you to determine if your physician is well educated, experienced and open minded, willing to listen and think and to use her hands to keep you as healthy as possible for as long as possible?
Surf all day if you like, but I’ll have to default to what is emerging as my personal take on the whole health 2.0 movement- thanks, it is nice and I’m glad to partake but there is nothing like the human touch. Give me my blink moment, when that young pup/pretty face/tanned golfer reveals with an indefinable gesture or prescient connection that they have heard me, and even better, that they have a plan for me. Medicine is practiced face to face, so ultimately, it is the face to face assessment that will convince me of a physician’s worth.
Interested in writing a guest post while David is on paternity leave? Send your submission to: