CHICAGO (AP) — Doctor ratings are less popular than those of toasters, cars and movies when it comes to online consumer sites. That's according to a survey that found most adults hadn't checked online physician reviews — and most said a conveniently located office and acceptance of patients' health insurance was more important.
Still, the sites do appear to be swaying opinions. About a third of patients who viewed online sites sought out or avoided physicians based on their ratings.
The findings come from a nationally representative Internet-based survey of 2,137 adults. The results were published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The 2012 survey may overestimate awareness among the general population, because about 1 in 5 Americans doesn't have Internet access. But the researchers attempted to compensate for that by providing free Internet-connected computers for consumers lacking access.
The results suggest that online ratings of doctor have gained popularity. That's a concern because there's no way to know whether a review is real or fake, or what might have motivated the reviewer, said lead author Dr. David Hanauer, a pediatrician and an associate professor at the University of Michigan.
More than one-third of those surveyed had checked out online reviews for movies, restaurants, appliances or electronics, and more than 1 in 4 had viewed online car ratings. But fewer than 1 in 5 said they had viewed physicians' ratings online.
Consumers' reviews of doctors can be found on dozens of online sites, including some that rate only doctors and others like yelp.com that cover a panoply of goods and services. Most reviewers remain anonymous or don't include their full names.
The American Medical Association — the nation's largest physicians group — is wary of the websites.
“Anonymous online opinions of physicians should be taken with a grain of salt, and should certainly not be a patient's sole source of information when looking for a new physician,” Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven, AMA's president, said in a statement.
Hanauer said he wasn't sure that doctors should be subject to “crowd-sourced” reviews as other commodities are.
He said doctors risk getting bad reviews for sound medical advice simply because patients don't agree with it. For example, antibiotics fight only bacteria, but parents often want pediatricians to prescribe them for kids' colds or other viruses. Doctors' refusals might result in a bad review, but that would be misleading, he said.
Lori Goldstein, a beauty salon owner in Chicago's suburbs, said she has used online ratings sites to help find doctors for her mother and herself, and has written negative online reviews on her fathers' doctors because she thinks they give him too many prescriptions.
But consumers have to be smart about using online reviews of doctors, Goldstein said. “You have to be careful because you can't believe everything.”
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