Whenever I’m about to buy a new appliance or car or even when I’m deciding on the next book to read, I check out online customer reviews. For many reasons, online patient reviews of doctors are not as reliable. Yet according to studies, nearly 60% of patients say that online reviews are an important factor in choosing a health-care provider. So is there a smart way to use these reviews when looking for a new doctor, dentist, physical therapist, etc.—without falling victim to their shortcomings? Yes, there is. Here’s how…

• Recognize which information is most helpful. If you are trying to determine just how competent a doctor is, patient reviews are not the best place to look. One patient may say a particular doctor is the best, while another says he/she is the worst. But that feedback is colored by the fact that you don’t necessarily know the patient’s medical condition or medical history. Nor do you know whether the person submitting the review even saw the doctor. Unlike some online retail shopping sites, privacy laws make it virtually impossible for a health-related website to verify that the review was written by a real patient. Another problem: With more than 950,000 active licensed physicians in the US, most websites have only a handful—if any—patient reviews about a given doctor. Fewer than 20 reviews of a doctor is not a valid sample of patient experience. When can patient reviews be helpful? Even though the feedback is still somewhat subjective, reviews that discuss a doctor’s “bedside” manner…time spent with the patient during a visit…ease of getting an appointment…and/or how well the office staff responds to questions or requests can provide useful information.

• Put the review to good use. To get the best use from a patient review, rely on it when you’re formulating questions to ask a doctor you might be seeing for the first time. If a doctor’s reviews complain that test results are not received in a timely manner, ask about that if you choose to see that doctor. Look for points that are important to you, such as taking time to answer questions or helping you set up appointments with other specialists.

• Choose the right sites. From my experience, three of the best websites for finding reviews of health providers are Healthgrades.comVitals.com…and RateMDs.com. Each provides a good deal of basic information about the provider, including his specialty, whether the provider is board-certified in that specialty (an indication that the doctor has done extra study and continuing education to meet the specialty’s highest standards), along with contact information (including the doctor’s office location, etc.). Note: The reviews and details on the provider usually include a date on the web page, which gives you an idea of how recent the information is. Insider tip: Many hospital websites now include patient reviews for doctors on their staff or those with admitting privileges. Often under a link titled “find a physician,” many of these sites allow you to search for a doctor by specialty, look at his background—such as schools attended and academic degrees attained—and post patient reviews. Even though it’s the hospital’s website, not all the reviews are positive.

• Don’t forget! You can help other patients by submitting reviews of your experience to the websites listed above. But be careful not to defame or otherwise attack a doctor. In recent years, doctors have been suing patients whom they feel have wrongly accused them of malpractice or poor treatment.

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