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Patient beware! Health care ratings sites under a microscope

By Maryalene LaPonsie on December 5th, 2011

The Internet may be a convenient place to locate ratings on health insurance plans, doctors and hospitals, but a recent report calls into question the quality of some popular ratings websites.

According to a study published in the November issue of the American Journal of Medical Quality, rating sites most easily found in Web searches (which are deemed "highly findable" in the report) are also most likely to use inconsistent anecdotal information rather than empirical data in their ratings.

Personal stories vs. performance measures

The study's authors selected search terms commonly used by patients looking for quality health care clinics or the best doctors in their area. The authors found that the most popular search results relied heavily on reviews of patients' own experience for their ratings.

Of the sites that made up the top 30 results generated by using key search terms, 67 percent included information based on patient experiences. On the other hand, just 22 percent highlighted data "drawn from evidence-based measures of physician performance," according to a report by American Medical News, the American Medical Association's news publication for physicians.

The need for objective data

Data based on patient anecdotes about a specific physician or clinic is "skewed" and is not as valuable as information based on the cost or quality of a health care provider, says Dr. Brian Sick, one of the study's authors and medical director for the University of Minnesota Primary Care Center.

Patients would be better served by finding sites with data "comparable across various clinics, hospitals and physicians," Sick says in the American Medical News report.

Relatively few patients turn to the Internet when selecting a physician. Despite having ratings information at their fingertips for everything from health insurance plans to hospitals, only 9 percent of 500 patients surveyed at four Minneapolis clinics said websites had affected their choice of doctor, according to a recent study that Sick co-wrote.

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