Hitting a Nerve

The dubious value of online reviews


I hear other doctors talk about online reviews, both good and bad.

I recently read a piece where a practice gave doctors a bonus for getting 5-star reviews, though it doesn’t say if they were penalized for getting bad reviews. I assume the latter docs got a good “talking to” by someone in administration, or marketing, or both.

I get my share of them, too, both good and bad, scattered across at least a dozen sites that profess to offer accurate ratings.

I tend to ignore all of them.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist is Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

Bad ratings mean nothing. They might be reasonable. They can also be from patients whom I fired for noncompliance, or from patients I refused to give an early narcotic refill to. They can also be from people who aren’t patients, such as a neighbor angry at the way I voted at a home owners association meeting, or a person who never saw me but was upset because I don’t take their insurance, or someone at the hospital whom I had to hang up on after being put on hold for 10 minutes.

Good reviews also don’t mean much, either. They might be from patients. They could also be from well-meaning family and friends. Or the waiter I left an extra-large tip for the other night.

One of my 1-star reviews even goes on to describe me in glowing terms (the lady called my office to apologize, saying the site confused her).

There’s also a whole cottage industry around this: Like restaurants, you can pay people to give you good reviews. They’re on Craig’s list and other sites. Some are freelancers. Others are actually well-organized companies, offering to give you X number of good reviews per month for a regular fee. I see ads for the latter online, usually describing themselves as “reputation recovery services.”

There was even a recent post on Sermo about this. A doctor noted he’d gotten a string of bad reviews from nonpatients, and shortly afterward was contacted by a reputation recovery service to help. He wondered if the crappy reviews were intentionally written by that business before they called him. He also questioned if it was an unspoken blackmail tactic – pay us or we’ll write more bad reviews.

Unlike a restaurant, we can’t respond because of patient confidentiality. Unless it’s something meaninglessly generic like “thank you” or “sorry you had a bad experience.”

A friend of mine (not in medicine) said that picking your doctor from online reviews is like selecting a wine recommended by a guy who lives at the train yard.

While there are pros and cons to the whole online review thing, in medicine there are mostly cons. Many reviews are anonymous, with no way to trace them. Unless details are provided, you don’t know if the reviewer is really a patient (or even a human in this bot era). Neither does the general public, reading them and presumably making decisions about who to see.

Like many things about the Internet, online reviews are the wild west. There are minimal (if any) rules, no law enforcement, and no one knows who the good guys and bad guys really are.

And there’s nothing we can do about it, either.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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