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The judgy world of online ratings comes to the doctor's office

You can award 5-star ratings to restaurants, hotels, even your Uber driver.

But the surgeon who fixed your knee?

Yes, rating your health care provider online is a thing. And if the online review site Yelp is any indication, the practice is becoming more popular in the Tampa Bay area.

Thousands of people have used the site to evaluate local doctors and hospitals. The reviews, which cover everything from bedside manner to office decor, aren't always pretty.

"This doctor is horrible," one reviewer wrote of a St. Petersburg physician. "Rude and incompetent. FIND ANOTHER DOCTOR!!!!"

Providers have their own concerns — namely the reviews are sometimes inaccurate or unfair. Responding can be problematic. Last month, the independent nonprofit newsroom ProPublica reported that some providers may have violated federal patient privacy laws in their online rebuttals.

Still, experts say Yelp and specialized sites like Healthgrades, Vitals and RateMDs can provide important insight into how a medical professional interacts with patients, and how the office handles behind-the-scenes processes like billing and insurance.

"That can be useful for certain patients, especially in combination with other metrics that assess the quality of care," said Dr. Benjamin Ranard, the lead author of a recent University of Pennsylvania study that examined hospital reviews on Yelp.

Yelp has been around for more than a decade, and is often associated with restaurant reviews. But roughly 6 percent of reviews on the site — or about 6 million posts — fall into the "health" category, according to the company's latest data.

The reviews tend to be positive. A recent analysis by ProPublica found health providers earned an average of 4 stars, though the average for acupuncturists, chiropractors and massage therapists (4.5) was considerably higher than that for physicians (3.6).

Lisa Schindler, a 45-year-old travel agent, used Yelp to review Advanced Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery in Tampa late last month. She gave the practice 4 out of 5 stars, mostly because she had expected to see a doctor, but saw a physician's assistant instead.

Cynthia Moore of St. Petersburg gave a 5-star rating to Dr. Kurt Hirshorn in March. In her review, Moore said the orthopedist did an "amazing job" fixing her fractured ankle last year, and called his staff "pleasant and professional."

Then, there are the negative posts.

Dr. David Lubin, who practiced in Tampa before retiring in 2013, remembers one that dinged him for having a "terrible attitude." The patient's chief complaint was that Lubin had entered the exam room, scanned his charts and started asking questions about his medical history — all without saying hello.

It wasn't hard for Lubin to figure out which of his patients wrote the review, he said. He confronted the man at the end of his next appointment, a printout of the review in hand.

"I pulled out his review, and asked, 'Did I do a better job this time?' " Lubin recalled. "His jaw dropped."

Niam Yaraghi, a fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said he sees value in online reviews that address the doctor's bedside manner and whether parking is convenient. They can inform both the patients and the physicians, he said.

But Yaraghi has misgivings when patients try to provide feedback on the clinical aspects of their care.

"If I'm a cancer patient and I go see an oncologist, he may or may not provide me with the best plans and treatment options out there," he said. "But I really do not know because I'm not an oncologist."

Dr. Michael O'Neal, who founded the region's first concierge care practice, has other concerns. He said the sites enable patients to make false claims without being held accountable.

"If a doctor happens to see it, he can't even respond because of the potential violations (of privacy laws)," he said. "It is becoming a one-sided story online."

What's more, O'Neal said, the online reviews represent a select group of patients. "It is a small sample size, it could be biased, and it very likely is not statistically relevant," he said.

Still, there's a growing demand for health information online.

Yelp recently beefed up its hospital reviews by adding federal data on emergency room wait times, how well the doctors communicate and how quiet the rooms are. The company plans to incorporate additional information in the future, vice president of public policy Luther Lowe said.

That's exciting to people like Kat Trelease.

"I use Yelp for everything," said the 32-year-old data entry specialist from St. Petersburg, adding that she found her primary care physician, gynecologist and chiropractor through the site.

For Lubin, the retired physician, Yelp remains top of mind these days — but for a different reason than in the past. Last year, he purchased a South Tampa deli called the Swann Ave. Market.

He takes pride in its online rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.

The judgy world of online ratings comes to the doctor's office 06/20/16 [Last modified: Monday, June 20, 2016 10:47pm]
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