To find quality information about doctors online, we need to look behind the sites first, assessing how they gather their information and why it is presented the way it is.
Remember, these physician ratings sites and directories only exist to make money for their owners. They have plenty of disclaimers about their information, so you can't come back to them to claim their information isn't solid. That means we must be well-informed about how valid their information is.
To create physician directory and quality ratings website reviews, I looked behind each of the sites to learn the following:
- Who owns the site, and how does it make money? Making money is not a bad thing, but how it makes its money may influence how it presents its information:
- Is it tied to Big Pharma, and therefore promotes doctors who work hand-in-hand with those pharmaceutical companies?
- Do doctors pay for their listings, which means the information is promotional and not objective quality information?
- Is the site owned by a health insurance company interested in keeping pricing lower, which therefore ranks doctors higher when they cost that insurer less?
- How complete is the information? Does it represent at least 500,000 physicians? Does it cover all 50 states in the United States or even add doctors in other countries?
- How current is the information? Is it kept updated on a regular basis?
- What database is being used? This can rarely be determined except for those sites that provide input by patients. There are good, comprehensive databases of doctors and their credentials available, but they are very expensive.
- What do you have to give them to get the information you want?
- Do you have to provide a name, location or email address, which violates your privacy?
- Or do you have to pay money for the report? This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's fair to ask for money in exchange for valuable quality information. That said, most of the information we patients need is available at no cost in other ways.
For the sites that allow patients to comment or rate their doctors:
Keep in mind that these sites have no way of telling who the actual "patient" who rates the doctor is. It could be a disgruntled patient, or it could be the doctor's spouse or staff. Knowing there is no way to tell how "real" these comments may be, we need to look behind how they ask the questions.
- Are the ratings anonymous? If they do not require a person's first and last name, then you can't be sure they are accurate or true. Even if they do ask for that information, you can't be sure the patient gave a real name.
- How many patients have already rated that doctor? Only one or two comments out of a doctor's entire practice of thousands is not a good representation. And remember, you don't even know if the people who made the comments were patients. Who's to say the negative comments weren't made by a competitor, another doctor?
Hundreds or thousands of ratings? That's a giveaway too. Some doctors give their patients a handout asking them to rate them. The only patients who get the request are leaving the office with a smile on their faces.
- How subjective or objective are the questions? How do you define "nice" or "clean" or "timely"? Do you define those words the way others do?
How the physician directory and ratings websites reviews were determined:
After asking the questions listed above about each site, I reviewed each of them by looking up four doctors I know something about. I also looked at each doctor's license information at the state medical board, where they practice. Review of these doctors and their listings gives us a good sense of the quality of the ratings website:
- Dr. LM is a primary care (DO), in New York State. She has been in practice for 15+ years and has one small black mark on her record, which has since been corrected. She did not show up on all sites perhaps because she is a DO (osteopathic doctor instead of an MD, medical doctor). If finding a DO is important to you, you'll want to be sure you use a directory or ratings site that includes them.
- Dr. PS is an ophthalmologist (MD), in Florida. She has been in practice 24+ years, and while I personally know of problems patients have had with her, there is nothing noted on her record on any websites, indicating those patients have not filed formal complaints or lawsuits. She is disagreeable and difficult to work with. Her name and records did show up on all the reviewed sites.
- Dr. JA is a plastic surgeon in California. His name is Dr. Jan Adams and his license was revoked in June 2008, because he owes back child support. He is well-known, because he performed surgery on Kanye West's mother, Donda West, just before she died. He did not, and should not, show up on any ratings websites, according to the Medical Board of California. Whether he showed up on the sites is an indicator of how often the database on a ratings website is updated.
- Dr. DWM is a neurosurgeon in Colorado. This doctor was disciplined for causing the death of a patient. He had moved from Georgia to Colorado after causing a similar death in Georgia. His information did not show up on any of the ratings websites, and according to the Colorado Medical Board, his license is current, but his profile is incomplete.
Finding the answers to as many of the questions I could, and then looking up each of the doctors listed above, gave me a good sense of each of the reviewed sites' capabilities to provide information that is useful to patients.
Find the websites and their reviews. Don't agree with me? Find an invitation at the end of the ratings article to submit your own.