MONDAY, Sept. 22, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Pediatricians, take note: Many American parents are aware of online physician-rating sites, and more than one-quarter have used them to choose a pediatrician for their children, according to a new national study.
The findings -- based on responses from more than 1,600 parents -- further suggest that negative online ratings may dissuade parents from choosing a pediatrician, even if that doctor has been recommended by a neighbor.
Conversely, a positive online rating may sway parents to choose that doctor, according to the study
"The whole purpose of this study was to get a sense of who is aware of these rating sites, and who's using them," said study lead author Dr. David Hanauer, an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
"The findings did surprise me because, frankly, a lot of doctors don't know about these sites, or don't seem to care about them," Hanauer said. "There's just not a lot of discussion about them."
Americans are relying on the Internet for health-related information in increasing numbers. Dozens of physician-rating sites exist, among them Healthgrades, RateMDs and Vitals. Just as consumers rate goods such as books or movies, patients are free to register positive or negative views of their physician on these doctor-review sites.
Hanauer and his colleagues presented their findings in the Sept. 22 online edition of Pediatrics.
The survey was conducted in 2012, and all participants had at least one child living at home who was under the age of 18. All were asked about familiarity with, and usage of, online ratings sites. They were also asked to indicate how they would handle one of three hypothetical scenarios.
In all three cases, neighbors had recommended their child's doctor. However, in the first scenario, no online ratings information was given, while in the second the participants were told the recommended doctor had received a high rating online. In the third scenario, the physician had received a low rating online.
Nearly three-quarters of the study respondents said they knew about physician rating sites, and 28 percent said they had used one to choose a pediatrician.
And the participants indicated they were significantly more likely to follow a neighbor's recommendation to choose a particular pediatrician if that doctor also had high rankings online -- compared with no online information.
But, in a case of bad online ratings, participants said they were significantly less likely to choose that pediatrician, despite a neighbor's positive comments.
"Clearly, parents are using [these sites]," Hanauer said. "They are influencing decisions. And because this study was done two years ago, I'd say that it's likely that their popularity today is even higher than what we saw."
Whether these online ratings accurately reflect a doctor's skills and performance is another issue, Hanauer said.
"We really don't know how accurate these ratings actually are. People may argue for or against a physician for any number of reasons, not all of which are clear," he said. "It only takes one bad rating to make a doctor look like a terrible person. And that's impactful, because physicians rely entirely on their reputation. So that's one concern. "
Reliability of the ratings is also a primary concern for Dr. David Dunkin, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
He noted, for example, that although positive comments can help attract new patients, "to make them reliable there must be a critical number of reviews."
Dunkin also pointed out that many ratings sites are essentially one-way conversations, in which physicians lack any opportunity to comment or offer context.
This runs the risk of treating the doctor-patient relationship "like a service, like going to a hotel or restaurant," he said.
"But ideally," he added, "the physician-patient relationship is a partnership or team -- one that is based on trust, respect for each other, and good communication that results in shared decision-making."
For more about online doctor ratings, visit the University of Michigan.