Correcting Misconceptions: “Online Doctor Ratings Are Garbage”

A recent post on the U.S. News & World Report blog “Policy Dose” skewered the rising popularity of online reviews in the healthcare sector. The author argued they’re worthless:


The argument is misguided. I know. I used to feel the way he did. Then, we analyzed the data. We’re now reformed skeptics. First, some background.

The “healthcare is not a restaurant” analogy

Applying the author’s argument to restaurants, consumers are equally unqualified to judge the culinary prowess of the chef at their favorite upscale bistro. How many of us actually pull out a meat thermometer before eating? We poke, prod, color check and eat. Nonetheless, we’re the experts of our own experiences with the chef, mechanic, exterminator… or doctor.

“Anybody can say if the steak is too chewy, the atmosphere is not pleasant, or the waitress is rude.” – Niam Yaraghi

Similarly, as patients, we can tell if our wait time is too long, the front office/check-out staff is poorly trained, or the doctor, PA or nurse has terrible bedside manner. We can also identify whether or not our condition improved.

When a patron rates a restaurant, he is not rating whether the meal was cooked to the technical specifications that the culinary discipline and the FDA call for.

The person enjoying the meal cares about the satisfaction the meal provides, not the technical know-how that went into making the meal. The ambiance of the restaurant, the efficiency, friendliness and professionalism of the servers, and the quality of the ingredients – these are the factors tipping the balance for “elite” Yelpers, positive or negative. More often than not, bad restaurant experiences feature a rude waiter, delayed service, distracting decor, or a bone in your Chilean sea bass.

In online reviews, consumers share their experiences. Arguing that healthcare consumers are “neither qualified nor capable of evaluating the quality of the medical services they receive” misses the point, and unfairly tarnishes a worldwide trend that shows no signs of letting up. The statement also mischaracterizes the role of online reviews. Is the average consumer any more likely to be educated about the culinary techniques used to prepare a souffle than a medical technique used in suturing? No.

Health care consumers are not rating the doctor, the hospital or the family practice they visit – they are rating the patient experiences that doctors, hospitals and family practices provide.

The bottom line is… they’re rating.

Crowdsourcing to the “best”

Consumers want to share their experiences, tapping into what their peers think about the seemingly everyday tasks like car repairs, medical appointments or filing taxes. Luckily, the all-encompassing social media ecosystem has amplified the simple “Hey, how is your insurance guy?” neighborly exchange into a never-ending stream of information about the “best” neighborhood guy, in every neighborhood.

Give Yaraghi credit where credit is due, crowdsourced information has repeatedly been proven reliable – “While people have different tastes and thus evaluate similar qualities differently, the overall ratings provided by a large enough sample of patrons give a fairly good sense of what is going on in that

[fill in the blank].”

Back to our original premise.

Can reviews be trusted? 

“Patients are neither qualified nor capable of evaluating the quality of the medical services they receive.” – Niam Yaraghi

We were skeptical, too. So, we did the research. Here’s what we learned. A doctor’s online reputation correlates with proxies for quality of care – namely safety and clinical outcomes. In 2012, our study in The Journal of Medical Internet Research analyzed the online reputations of “high volume surgeons” and “low volume surgeons” across three surgical procedures (lumbar surgery, knee replacement and bariatric surgery). High volume surgeons had better safety records and clinical outcomes than low volume surgeons. The results showed that online reviews can be used to differentiate between the two surgeon groups. The study was the first to conclude that online reviews could be used to predict the quality of care of doctors – precisely the point the blog’s author dismissed.

The result of a single study is not the end of the story – more research is needed. Nonetheless, the findings reflect the emerging reality that healthcare consumers are, more than ever, utilizing the Internet to make and affirm their medical choices. This is a good thing.

Increasingly, consumers are finding and using their voices in online settings. Let us know what you think – are patients qualified to comment on their own experiences with their medical providers?

By | 2017-07-14T11:32:53+00:00 July 3rd, 2015|Marketing, News, Online reputation, Online reviews, Research, Trends|9 Comments

About the Author:

Helping patients find the best doctors online. Helping the best doctors be found online.At eMerit®, we focus on managing your Dental or Medical Identity toward a sustainable and growing business – where both doctors and patients thrive.And we minimize distractions away from patient care while meeting your business objectives by transforming everyday patient interactions into growth drivers.At eMerit, we take your Medical Identity® personally.


  1. Michael M. Rosenblatt, DPM July 3, 2015 at 6:35 pm - Reply

    The “volume” of surgery a physician performs may or may not be related directly to their wealth of experience and expertise, by way of these examples:

    1. Surgeon A does ONLY bariatric surgery and has a large advertising base and lower fees in order to obtain those cases. He’s very competent and selective.
    2. Surgeon B is divorced with 3 children and a new-bride half his age who expects to live the big time. Surgeon B accepts almost any kinds of cases that will pay. After all, he has 3 angry children in college who demand his credit card and an ex wife who refuses to speak to him…but still owns his previous home. His volume is suspect because he takes high risk patients
    3. Surgeon C works in a large medical center or HMO and gets enormous referral numbers from physicians in his own group. He has a lot of experience with these and achieves chronically good outcomes.

    I wonder if the public is able to identify or evaluate these issues, based upon computerized popularity ratings? A physician may not have a good bedside approach but has a very work-person organized practice with very good detail control. The patient may not like her because she is blunt and not interested in small-talk, but she has computers in every room and has control over everything. She is a very good surgeon. She saves her socializing for her outside clubs. Her patients entirely miss that…and give her a bad rating.

    Surgeon B above looks at most of his patients as a method to advance and maintain his boards and of course collect fees tor his many personal debts. But he is smooth as silk. The nurses who work with him always see him rush procedures because of the ever present clock. But patients don’t pick up on this. He has a huge volume.

    I’m not particularly trusting of “large volume statistics” except in certain difficult procedures, like thyroidectomy and using operative da Vinci microsurgery. I certainly wonder if patients can pick up on these issues from the outside…simply by looking at reviews. I rather doubt it.

    Michael M. Rosenblatt, DPM

  2. Maria July 3, 2015 at 8:53 pm - Reply

    You ought to consider the medical licensing boards reviews and actions against physicians who have good and bad online ratings, a charming bedside manner can cover many mistakes. Anonymous negative “reviews” have been posted from competing physicians or their staff members in order to undermine competing practices. Patient ratings undoubtedly reflect their experience, but other methods are needed to rate physician quality.

  3. Richard Willner July 3, 2015 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    I have found that the difference between those doctors who have lots of high ratings vs those who do not can be found in a simple letter that every patient gets in the waiting room asking them to rate their doctor in specific websites. It is that simple. Patients want to please their doctor and thus are glad to do what he requests.

  4. Eric July 4, 2015 at 6:55 am - Reply

    Online physician reviews are gold, and have significant value for physicians who wish to grow their practices and thrive.

    Back in med school, the three As were used to define the qualities of a successful physician, in order of importance – Affability, Availability, and Ability. Unless you’re like Professor J Gruber, MIT OCare author, and think Americans are fundamentally stupid, it’s not clear why one would presume patients are incapable of evaluating the three As.

    We are watching the implementation of a two tier medical system unfold in America right now. The “establishment” physicians are more concerned about PQRS and Meaningful Use than the three As, since if you don’t meet these incomprehensible government standards of “quality”, you get penalized. For establishment physicians, online reviews are relatively unimportant.

    The private practitioners of medicine, myself included, are in the minority today. But like the successful restauranteur who aims to please, private practitioners want to deliver a superior brand of medicine to our patients.

    Onine reviews reach most ends of the earth. They are permanent and mostly irremoveable, and in the most simplistic terms, they indicate whether or not the poster was happy with their visit. And Professor Gruber probably agrees that even stupid Americans are able to differentiate these two emotions.

    On this Independence Day, I wish all American physicians a blessed day. Consider breaking free from the establishment, and gain complete control of your worldwide online reputation. Thank you 🙂

  5. Peter July 4, 2015 at 9:00 am - Reply

    I’m not sure I am buying the ‘if’-then’ argument about high-volume surgeons and quality of care. In ophthalmology, there are some excellent high-volume surgeons. But there are also high-volume surgeons who operate on anything that comes through the door (granted, these are easier cases and less likely to have complications) but also tend to push the envelope and have more problems. Also, these surgeons typically depend on a referral network from optometrists who do their postop care for them – often they don’t see complications that are responsible for, therefore erroneously thinking that everything they do works just fine.

    After 20 years in the field, I think a better indicator of quality of care, specifically in ophthalmology (but there are studies showing this is true in medicine in general) is a group practice, where peer pressure, peer review, and an in-house compliance program (things lacking in many of these high-volume practices, especially if they are solo) are present.

    Having said that, there is still much value in cultivating positive patient reviews. You can’t do much about unsolicited reviews that have already been written. But you can drown them out with good ones. We have instituted a process for soliciting positive reviews from patients which almost guarantees a high-star rating, ethically. A system like this is not only cost-effective, but can also be shown to be profitable.

  6. Robert Riley MD July 4, 2015 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    I wonder who has the bigger conflict of interest here, Yaraghi or EMerit? I suspect the latter, I think that the one thing that can be certain as the medical-industrial complex continues to roll over patients and the folks most involved in taking care of them, is that conflicts of interest will continue to abound.

    • Eric July 4, 2015 at 6:51 pm - Reply

      Hi Dr Riley,

      Since I commented on this blog article, I would like to say that we have been using eMerit for years, and in our opinion, eMerit is an ethical and effective method of obtaining reviews at the point of service from our actual patients, and this has been immeasurably helpful for our practice in many ways. I do not believe eMerit has a conflict of interest with anyone. Thank you 🙂

  7. Miguel PappollA July 6, 2015 at 11:42 am - Reply

    There is a poor correlation between online ratings and healthcare outcomes. In fact, the practice of posting reviews is almost coercive to many physicians, particularly in certain specialties. For the most part, the public is unaware about what goes into the equation of good medical outcomes. I’m an interventional neurologist and pain medicine specialist. Most of my bad reviews come from patients who did not walk out with their oxycodone and a smile from my practice. This current article supporting the reliability of online reviews is biased. I’m not questioning the benefit of having the help of a company like eMerit in the current environment.However, I don’t agree with their argument on this piece.

  8. Doctor Ratings December 16, 2015 at 12:12 am - Reply

    Hello, would like to know Every medical system in the country should embrace online reviews. This solves two problems. First, studies show that many physician rating sites have scant number of reviews for doctors.

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