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Online doctor rating sites let you check up on physicians

Looking for a family doctor? Here's what some people are saying about one from the Tampa Bay area:

"This is the most unprofessional, unkempt, RUDE doctor I have ever seen."

"I can not believe he can even practice."

But then, there's this:

"I have been with the Doc for about 8 or 9 years. He has kept me alive."

That's a glimpse into the enormously popular, yet controversial, world of online doctor ratings. Dozens of Web sites, with such names as RateMDs, FindADoc and SuggestADoctor, allow users to comment on and rate a doctor's knowledge, punctuality and even his or her staff.

Users and those who run the sites say the ratings provide important information, helping people sort out good doctors from bad ones. They say it's just like the old practice of asking a neighbor, friend or co-worker about a doctor, but with far greater reach.

Many doctors say the ratings don't provide an accurate or complete picture of a physician. They point out that since many sites allow users to comment anonymously, there's no way to know if the information is accurate.

A small but growing number of physicians have even asked patients to sign privacy agreements that essentially forbid them from posting comments and ratings about the doctors online.

With so many different sites, it can be hard to navigate them. Some allow anonymous comments, while others require registration before posting. Some sites include additional data, such as a doctor's disciplinary actions. A few seem to be little more than a forum for doctor bashing.

But users and doctors agree that online ratings are here to stay. Since adding medical categories to its rating site last year, Angie's List has averaged 10,000 reports about doctors each month, according to site founder Angie Hicks. RateMDs.com boasts more than 754,000 ratings of nearly 200,000 doctors.

One site, vitals.com, makes no bones about its significance, with a home page that reads: "Let us help you make one of the most important decisions of your life."

• • •

Angie's List has been in the ratings business for more than 14 years, starting as a call-in service focused mainly on home improvement services. It has since expanded online, with more than 400 categories.

Hicks said one of the most common requests from members was to expand into health care. And last year, it did just that. Members, who must register and pay to use the service, now can browse through broad categories of dentistry, facilities, pediatrics, primary care and specialists, with many subcategories within them. Once users click on a doctor's name, they can see his or her overall grade, ratings on categories such as communication and bedside manner, and comments.

Laura Henley of Land O'Lakes has been an Angie's List member for about five years. The 58-year-old has used it for plumbing and electrical services, and for a kitchen remodel. When the site added medical categories, she said she posted information about previous experiences she has had with doctors.

"In the past I have tried to rely on other people's experience, people with whom I work or neighbors," she said. "But when you work in a city, it doesn't necessarily mean that your co-workers are in your own area."

Henley still seeks the experiences of other people, and sees Angie's List as another tool in helping her make decisions.

"I've had very positive results," she said.

• • •

Dr. Natalie Leibensperger is among the most rated Tampa Bay area doctors on rateMDs.com, with 27 ratings — ranging from "kind, caring and knowledgeable" to "not happy with care or follow-up."

"They can write anything they want to, whether it's true or not," said Leibensperger, who operates the Spring Hill practice My Gynecologist. "Unfortunately, the people who go to those sites are the people who are not happy with you."

Leibensperger said she doesn't pay attention to online rating sites, and instead considers internal surveys given randomly to the thousands of patients she sees as a more accurate measure of her performance.

Some doctors have responded to the popularity of rating sites by asking patients to sign privacy agreements. The agreements are provided to doctors by a company called Medical Justice, and include language such as "patient agrees to refrain from directly or indirectly publishing or airing commentary upon physician and his practice, expertise and/or treatment."

In a May article in the online Physicians News Digest, Dr. Jeffrey Segal, founder and president of Medical Justice, outlined three things that are wrong with doctor rating sites. He said there's no way to know whether the person posting is a patient, or merely someone posing as a patient. He said privacy laws forbid physicians to respond to incorrect claims. And he said the information on the sites is misleading, writing that "unverifiable, anecdotal, anonymous postings do not improve the quality of health care."

• • •

Jon Black is CEO of one of the newer online rating sites, checkMD.com. He said if he were ever asked to sign a privacy agreement, "I would run, not walk, away from that office."

But he understands where doctors are coming from.

"They feel like an animal backed into a corner, because they have no control over what's being said about them," Black said.

He said he created checkMD.com last year to help consumers find the 95 percent of physicians who are doing good work, not the 5 percent who are responsible for a majority of malpractice payouts. He said his site uses publicly available data on physicians, and includes that alongside user ratings and comments. His site also allows doctors to provide information about themselves.

The result: 80 percent of ratings on the site are positive 4's and 5's on a scale of 1 to 5, he said.

Fred Whitson of the Florida Medical Association thinks consumers can get better information about doctors from other sources, pointing to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration (ahca.myflorida.com). The state Department of Health (doh.state.fl.us) is another place to go.

But Whitson, director of medical economics for the association, which represents 17,000 physicians, also recognizes that online sites are here to stay. He said any measures they can take, such as the elimination of anonymous comments, would be helpful.

"We believe in transparency, as long as it's accurate, valid and useful information," he said.

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

Patient advisory

Online doctor rating sites have become very popular. With dozens of different sites available, it's hard to know where to start. Here are some tips for smart surfing.

• Look for sites that include other information and data alongside user ratings. CheckMD.com, for example, includes any disciplinary actions or citations the doctor might have.

• Be wary of rating sites that allow anonymous postings or ratings. Those tend to include a greater percentage of negative comments. Some sites, such as Angie's List, require you to register before posting or viewing ratings.

• Volume is important. You're more likely to get an accurate picture by reading multiple reviews, either on one site or multiple sites.

• Don't rely solely or too heavily on online rating sites. There are other places to get information, including the state Department of Health Web site (ww2.doh.state.fl.us/mqaservices). There, you can verify if the doctor is licensed or has disciplinary actions, or you can file a complaint.

Online doctor rating sites let you check up on physicians 05/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 12:37pm]

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