How to find a doctor online

by Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent

Decide priorities: Is doctor’s politeness as important as successful outcomes?

Look for specific criticisms, not just negative general characterizations

If many people make similar observations, criticism, it’s worth noting

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — Traditionally, people have found doctors by word of mouth: Find someone you trust, and ask whom they use.

These days, many people are using electronic word of mouth. Put “doctor ratings” into a search engine and you’ll come up with a list of sites where people rate physicians and make comments.

Last month, Angie’s List — the place you go to find a good plumber — joined the club by starting a doctor section, and even Zagat’s, the folks who rate restaurants, is launching a doctor rating service.

A lot of doctors aren’t crazy about these sites and point out that random, anonymous opinions don’t truly measure a physician’s quality. But many consumer health experts say these sites are here to stay, and can be helpful if used properly. Here are five tips for smart surfing on physician rating Web sites.

1. Decide what you care about

Are you looking for a long-term medical partner like a pediatrician or internist, or are you looking for a specialist for a short-term relationship?

This is important because many of the comments on these sites have to do with logistics (“a very dictatorial front office” writes one reviewer on about a gastroenterologist) or character (“Dr. X is quite pretentious,” writes another reviewer on the same site). Nasty secretaries and a haughty doctor can be bad news if this is someone you’ll be seeing often. But if the doctor’s going to yank out your tonsils and you’re never going to see her again, do you really care that she’s full of herself and her office staff is mean?

“The ‘what’ is as important as the ‘who,’ ” says David Lansky, president of the Pacific Business Group on Health. “If I want a heart surgeon, I’m going to look for different things than if I’m looking for a primary care doctor.”

2. Look for volume

It’s a matter of statistics: The more reviews you read, the more likely you are to get an accurate assessment. “I would check a lot of different Web sites,” says Carol Cronin, executive director of the Informed Patient Institute. “Look across them, not just within one.”

Speaking of volume, a common concern about doctor rating sites is that one angry patient can make multiple nasty comments, using a different name each time (or, conversely, that the physician herself could go on and make multiple glowing comments).

But Martin Schneider, chairman of the Informed Patient Institute, says these sites have ways of detecting when one person is making several comments under different names. Back in the 1990s, Schneider was president of a now-defunct doctor rating site called “Even back then, we had to the technology to stop that from happening,” he says.

3. Look for specifics, not adjectives

“A general statement like, ‘Dr. Smith is really a jerk,’ doesn’t tell you much,” says Steven Findlay, a health care analyst for Consumers Union. “It doesn’t get to the quality of care they deliver.”

Findlay says to look for reviews with specific examples of what the doctor did right or wrong. “Let’s say someone’s writing about how a doctor handled a kidney stone,” he says. “You want to know how quickly that doctor got you to an X-ray. How quickly did they assess the X-ray? Did you get the medicine you needed? Did the doctor monitor the case and follow-up?”

4. Look for patterns

Once you’ve found specifics, look for patterns. Five complaints that say the same thing are statistically more meaningful than five complaints about different issues, says Dr. Robert Wachter, associate chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“If I look someone up and they have five dings all on a similar theme and I have a choice, I’m going to go elsewhere,” says Wachter, who blogs on health care quality issues.

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