Count me as an early skeptic on the value of patient reviews. Why? I believed that patients were interested, in order, safety, clinical outcomes, and then the experience. What good is it to be treated with kindness and compassion, only to die?

So, we set out to research this topic early in 2011. Our working hypothesis was that there’s no correlation between online reputation of a doctor and his or her clinical track record.

Here’s how we studied the problem. We obtained a list of high volume versus low volume surgeons for specific procedures. There’s pretty good data in the medical literature supporting that high volume surgeons (for specific procedures) have better safety records and clinical outcomes compared to dabblers. This list was blinded. We did not know which surgeon was high volume or low volume.

We hired several researchers to analyze the online reputation for these doctors – looking at numerical ratings and text reviews on assorted doctor review sites.

What did we find?

Online reviews DID allow us to determine who was a high volume or low volume surgeon. In other words, those with the best online reputations were more likely to be high volume. And this finding held even though the average number of reviews per doctor per site was in single digits in 2011. We published these results in Journal of Medical Internet Research.

We are repeating this study (somewhat differently) to see if online reputation correlates with quality for primary care doctors. We are guessing the results will mirror our previous findings.

So, while I was an early skeptic, I now believe online reviews deliver much more information than whether the doctor was nice to me. They are valuable nuggets of data to help patients find the best doctors. And, the best doctors should proactively ask their patients to give online feedback. This will deliver a more representational picture of their practices on the Internet.

By the way, patients do read reviews. Every year, more and more.