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Online Doctor Ratings ‘Important’ to Patients

Plenty of Americans wouldn’t dream of buying a book or renting a movie without checking online ratings first — and increasingly they’re going online when looking for a doctor, too, a new survey shows.

Nearly two thirds of the 2,137 people polled in the Internet-based survey said that physician ratings were at least “somewhat important” in choosing a doctor. Of those, 19 percent said internet ratings were “very important.” (Researchers compensated for potential bias of an Internet poll by providing free Internet-connected computers to respondents without access.)

The new findings may make a lot of physicians unhappy, said the study's lead author Dr. David Hanauer, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. "Most physicians are very concerned about Internet rating sites," he said. "They feel that the negative comments are going to outweigh the positive ones."

Though physician rating sites are gaining traction, the report published in JAMA found that a personal reference from family and friends was still more important to most people, as was whether a physician was accepted by the patient’s health insurance policy.

Hanauer's main concern is the trustworthiness of the websites doing the rating. "How do consumers know where to go to get reliable information?" he said.

That problem may soon be solved, said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"It's something that Medicare is working on," Jha said. "They're trying to build a site with good quality information."

In the meantime, doctors shouldn't be so worried about negative patient reviews, Jha said, adding "if you look at websites that let patients rate doctors, most of the ratings are quite positive."

His message to consumers is simple: "If you go to a site and see one rating and it's negative, don't put too much stock in it. But if there are 30 ratings and they're mostly negative, that's a lot more compelling."