Studies show that only a handful of adults are visiting and using information from websites that rate physicians. For example, more than 80 percent of California-based adults say they use the Internet for health-related information, such as medical symptoms and diagnoses, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the California HealthCare Foundation. But less than 25 percent of those surveyed say they have visited physician ratings sites, and only 2 percent of those actually made a physician change based on the information they found. Even fewer, less than 1 percent, say they made a hospital or health plan switch based on online ratings.
Are Ranking Systems Good or Bad for Health Care?
Transparency in health care is the goal of ranking systems. But can health care be measured the way consistent products like cars or appliances are measured? The assumption is that ranking doctors by a certain set of criteria will give consumers an informed choice, benefit good doctors, punish bad apples and ultimately lower the cost of health care insurance.
Most doctors agree that consumers need information, though even without these ranking systems sponsored by insurers, there is already an abundance of data available on the Internet, including commercial sites like RateMDs.com or Vitals.com.
Whatever system of ranking is used, doctors argue that it should be accurate, reliable, up-to-date and clinically relevant.
Understandably, doctors would like to see universally accepted standards that do not engender confusion and misunderstanding among consumers before physician ranking is widely used.
Will Ratings Sites Ever Take Off?
Some experts say these statistics prove it will be a long time before physician ratings sites grow in popularity and -- that they may never catch on at all. However, other industry professionals believe that few patients visit these sites because the market is still in its infancy. They believe that as the ratings information becomes more in-depth, more consumers will flock to the sites.
Additionally, some insurers are encouraging members to use their own ratings sites. In this type of network, members pay less out of pocket if they visit a physician that meets the insurer's "quality criteria." However, many doctors claim this system is flawed.
Physicians Should Still Watch their Online Reputations
Although physician ratings sites aren't skyrocketing in popularity as of yet, industry experts say that physicians should still be concerned about their online reputations. For many decades, word-of-mouth has been deemed the most influential advertisement for any business. Therefore, continuous negative word-of-mouth could lead to a medical professional's downfall.
Patients are already sharing information online about medical conditions and other health issues, and this communication can spread like wildfire. Some experts predict the details about specific physicians, especially those who are either exceptionally great or really terrible, will soon follow suit in the online world. Commercial sites let satisfied patients rave about the doctors they love and disgruntled patients dish on the ones they find subpar ... even if the only problem was a too-cold waiting room. Unfortunately, in some of those cases the only recourse doctors have is to follow up the negative commentary with comments of their own.
Small, but Growing
Although few patients are actually using the information gleaned from physician ratings sites, these sites have seen an uptick in visitors over the past few years.
Some medical industry experts believe the only reason more patients aren't taking action based on the information they find is because the sites often don't include details specific to their needs. Additionally, most patients are not willing to switch physicians if they are happy with their current provider. However, they may be more likely to take online advice if they are unhappy with their doctor, have been diagnosed with a medical condition or if they have recently moved.
Keeping a Close Eye on Ratings Sites
Although these sites have yet to take off, the American Medical Association and other organized medicine groups are keeping watch over the market. In some cases, the AMA has opposed ratings sites. As a matter of fact, the association joined forces with other medical groups in Missouri to push back UnitedHealth Group's plan to use claims data to rank physicians.
Additionally, some states are regulating physician ranking and ratings networks. For example, some states require health plans to use quality measures for rankings instead of price. Plus, some rules allow physicians to see the basis for their ratings and have an opportunity to appeal.
By some estimates, physician ranking systems will improve greatly when all patient records are electronic. That way the ranking will see a broader range of information, such as what tests were ordered by a doctor rather than just the tests that were actually run. When that happens, the physician ranking system may be an effective catalyst for a better health care system.