News

Doctor-Rating Websites Often Inaccurate, Study Finds

A person holding an iPad with a website for a doctor on the screen.

mphillips007/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • Physician rating websites can help you find a doctor, but there are data quality issues associated with these sites that can be misleading.
  • A recent review analyzed 49 literature papers on online patient-reported physician ratings and reviews and found that 53% contained intrinsic data quality errors and 61% uncovered contextual data quality issues.
  • The most common issues include a notable absence of negative ratings, emotionally charged comments, and anonymous ratings that are not entirely believable.

Many people rely on websites where patients can review their physicians to help them choose a doctor or assess their current provider, but the information on these sites can be misleading. A systematic literature review from the University of Buffalo found that many physician-rating websites (PRWs) include inaccurate information and data quality issues.

For the study, researchers looked at 49 literature papers regarding online patient-reported physician ratings and reviews. They implemented a conceptual data quality framework that was designed to analyze the PRW data grouped into four distinct categories:

  • Intrinsic data quality (accuracy, objectivity, believability, reputation)
  • Contextual data quality (value-added, relevancy, timeliness, completeness, appropriate amount of data)
  • Representational data quality (interpretability, ease of understanding, representational consistency, concise representation)
  • Accessibility data quality (accessibility, access security)

The researchers found that 53% of the sites contained intrinsic data quality errors (accuracy, objectivity, reputation, and believability), and 61% presented contextual data quality issues (relevance, value addition, timeliness, and completeness).

There were also other problems, such as system interfaces that were not easy to understand, as well as questionable security and safety of data.

The Most Common Problems

Based on the data, the most prominent PRW quality issues were:

  • A notable absence of negative ratings
  • Emotionally charged comments
  • Anonymous ratings that were not entirely believable
  • Premium-paying physicians were able to hide up to three negative comments
  • A low volume of reviews and ratings
  • Positive ratings based on factors that do not involve physician characteristics (ease of getting an appointment, short wait time, staff behaviors)
  • Higher ratings were associated with marketing strategies
  • The positioning of positive reviews and rating data on the first pages impact patient perception
  • PRW all use different scales to measure physicians making the data difficult to interpret

“There needs to be stricter rules,” Pavankumar Mulgund, PhD, lead author, clinical assistant professor of management science and systems at the University at Buffalo School Of Management, tells Verywell. “We need to avoid anonymous ratings, reveal their business models and source of revenue to the end-users, and flag and remove potentially fake reviews by making use of data science and AI.”

Can Doctors Control Their Online Presence?

Electronic word of mouth (e-WOM) wields a significant influence over consumer decision making, and healthcare is no exception. Reports estimate that 35% of patients selected physicians based on good ratings, while 37% of people avoided doctors with bad ratings.

Many popular PRW sites pull data from the National Provider Identifier Registry (a government database of all active health providers), which means that physicians do not currently have the option to opt-out of being included on popular sites like Healthgrades and RateMDs.

However, PRW sites sometimes let doctors purchase a premium subscription that allows them to have more control over the data and reviews that are published. 

Mulgund says that many PRW sites offered physicians the ability to remove a few negative comments, place ads, and influence their position among search results with the purchase of a premium subscription. In turn, this influences patients' perception and sways their healthcare decisions.

“If doctors don’t pay, they have minimal control over what patients post,” Mulgund says. “However, if they don’t pay, they are still able to update their profiles to keep them current. For example, they can update employment changes and new insurance they accept.”

Legislation

Currently, there is not much legislation to regulate the control of personal online data. That could change with the recent enactment of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA), which allows people to opt-out of the sale of personal information and give them other ways to take control of the data being shared about them.

How to Use PRW Sites

Mulgund says that despite the data quality issues of PRW sites, the majority of physician ratings are positive, typically averaging 4.6 out of 5. The platforms let people provide feedback and voice their opinions, which keeps the sites popular.

PRW sites can be a good way to access information on healthcare providers and services, but patients should look carefully at data from multiple PRW sites. “One of the best ways for someone to find a doctor is to triangulate data across several sites,” Mulgund says. "They could also lookup malpractice and physician comparison databases that are provided by the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services.”

What This Means For You

Before you make a decision about a doctor based on a review you see online, make sure that you cross-reference the information on several PRW sites. You can also use the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services physician comparison database to verify a physician's background information and credentials

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mulgund P, Sharman R, Anand P, Shekhar S, Karadi P. Data quality issues with physician-rating websites: systematic review. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2020: 22(9). doi:10.2196/15916

  2. Hanauer D, Zheng K, Singer D. Public awareness, perception, and use of online physician rating sites. JAMA. 2014:311(7). doi.10.1001/jama.2013.283194