Finding a new doctor can be a daunting task. For help, many older adults turn to online reviews, a new study finds.
In fact, many people rate online reviews as highly as they would a recommendation from friends and family when picking a doctor, the new research found.
"Doctors and policymakers should know that many older adults are viewing and valuing online ratings and reviews when choosing physicians," said researcher Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren. He's an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
However, "the information on online physician rating sites often provides little insight into the context of health care encounters or the quality of care provided," Kullgren added. "This can make some patients skeptical of ratings and reviews."
Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit think tank that conducts research on a range of health issues. She said that choosing a doctor is a complex undertaking.
"The trouble with these ratings are they're not based on how good the physician is," said Zuckerman, who wasn't involved in the new study. "They're usually based on convenience issues, like how long do you have to wait in the waiting room, how nice is the doctor, and does the doctor listen to you. These are all nice things, but they're not really the important things."
In the new study, Kullgren and colleagues used data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, a recurring survey of U.S. adults.
In all, the survey found that 40% of adults aged 50 to 80 have used online doctor rating sites and trust them almost as much as recommendations from family or friends for choosing a doctor. Also, online ratings were seen as more important than where a doctor went to medical school or trained.
"Many older adults now find online ratings and reviews to be very important when choosing a physician, and some individuals are more likely to use and value this information," Kullgren noted.
Women, people with more education and those with chronic conditions were the most likely to turn to online rating sites, the investigators found.
Still, other factors besides online reviews were important in choosing a doctor. These included whether the doctor accepted their health insurance (93%) and whether the doctor was of the same race or ethnicity (2%). Online doctor ratings and reviews ranked ninth in importance.
Every patient who is choosing a physician needs to consider what information is most important to them, and understand its potential upsides and downsides, Kullgren said.
"It's also incumbent on health systems to provide a range of information about physicians to patients so that they can most efficiently find a physician who will meet their needs," he added. He believes policymakers and clinicians need to ensure that online rating information is accurate and reliable, and that patients understand its potential and limitations.
Zuckerman agreed. She said that most people don't have the expertise to rate a doctor in ways that are meaningful in terms of how good a physician is or how good the medical care that they're going to get is.
Often, online ratings should be taken with a grain of salt, she said, because you don't know exactly what the ratings are based on.
The recommendation of friends or family members can be helpful, but in the end, it's going to be how your experience with a doctor measures up to your needs and expectations that are important. And you shouldn't be afraid to change doctors if you're dissatisfied with your care, she advised.
Zuckerman agreed with the researchers that it's up to policymakers and clinicians to set standards and criteria for online reviews. Patients, too, need to understand the pros and cons of online ratings.
The report was published online April 12 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
For more on finding a doctor, head to the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
SOURCES: Jeffrey Kullgren, MD, associate professor, internal medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president, National Center for Health Research, Washington, D.C.; Annals of Internal Medicine, April 12, 2021, online