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Oliver Kharraz, M.D. Headshot

How to Read a Doctor Review (It's Trickier Than You Think)

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Centuries ago, the story goes, a tradition stood amongst the healthcare providers of China. Doctors would hang lanterns outside their offices, one for each patient who had died in their care. Less-savvy patients would pick the physician with the fewest lanterns. Wiser patients would ask how many years of experience each practitioner had accrued. (Would you rather see the doctor with 30 years of practice and 5 lanterns, or the one who's fresh out of med school and already has two?)

We live in a different world now, but the story points to an important fact: doctor reviews are only helpful if you interpret them correctly. And it's still true today that misunderstanding a doctor review can be to your serious detriment.

In the developed world, we've come to depend on online reviews for almost every consumer decision we make. When choosing anything from apparel to electronics, hotels, and restaurants, we seek out the opinions of our peers online. (There's even a new comic trope: funny Amazon reviews.)

Unsurprisingly, research shows that this commentary is more important than ever. One recent study found that 72 percent of consumers give the same weight to online reviews that they do to personal recommendations.

Doctor reviews play an important part in this larger picture. There is a huge demand from patients for trustworthy consumer feedback about our healthcare providers. But choosing a physician is both trickier and higher-stakes than, say, buying a new food processor. Doctor reviews can be perilous, and there are three things you should consider the next time you are trying to find a doctor online.

Step 1: Consider the Source

The first step is to consider the source, because not all physician review sites are created equal.

Open-loop review services allow anyone to rate a doctor. The problem with this arrangement is that it allows, literally, anyone to rate a doctor! If you are looking at a positive review on an open-loop review site, was it actually left by a happy patient - or was it written by the practice itself, in an attempt to boost its reputation? Were the negative comments left by dissatisfied patients, or by one of the physician's competitors?

Closed-loop review services do the opposite: they "close the loop" by verifying the identity of each reviewer. On ZocDoc (the company I cofounded), for example, only patients who have booked an appointment online through ZocDoc and have seen the doctor can leave a review. This means the comments are fundamentally trustworthy in a way that's not possible elsewhere.

The upshot for savvy healthcare consumers is this: know the difference between open-loop and closed-loop services, and take reviews on the former sites with a grain of salt.

Step 2: Beware of Outliers

If you are interested in a doctor whose overall score isn't great, take a moment to see how many ratings he or she has. When there are only a few, it's much easier for an outlier - a single patient who is unhappy and venting - to bring down the whole score. (And even terrific healthcare providers are likely to end up with a few of these outliers.) That's why more ratings often mean a more balanced and representative score.

Step 3: Take Your Time

The final step, when you are reading doctor reviews online, is this: actually read them. Don't just look at a healthcare professional's overall star rating, because it may be affected by factors that aren't very important to you.

On ZocDoc, for instance, patients rate providers in several categories, including bedside manner and wait time. It's not uncommon for doctors to perform worse in one category and better in another. So before you screen out that physician with a mediocre star rating, read the individual reviews and see why patients are displeased. You might not share their values - or their expectations. (After all, you and I might both want a doctor with great bedside manner, but disagree wildly on what that means.)

While you are reading into the doctor's profile, don't forget to look over his or her background, education, awards and recognitions, and so on. This is an essential part of narrowing down what you actually want in a doctor, so you can interpret ratings and reviews in a helpful way.

Say you have done all this. You found a great doctor, and got the care you needed. Your run-in with the world of online medical reviews is over... or is it?

There is a bonus fourth step that I would encourage you to take: give back! Leave an online review of your physician for the next patient. Recording a few details - even if they don't seem useful - can be very important to others. We are all looking for different things in a doctor, and we all need other patients to help us get there.

Taking down a few notes about your healthcare experience might not feel revolutionary, but think for a moment about this incredible fact: never before has a modern healthcare system been characterized by such accountability and transparency. Now, for the first time, information flows from patients back to doctors and other patients. And every time you take part in this new information flow and share your thoughts with other patients, you are helping build a better, more efficient, and more effective healthcare system.

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