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by Rachel Nania, AARP
Website ratings and reviews matter to older adults, research shows
"There may be an assumption that [online ratings] are really more for a younger generation. But the older adults, they utilize health care more, and this shows [online ratings] are a relatively important source of information for them,” says David Hanauer, a physician and clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan, who contributed to the research.
Take reviews with a grain of salt. Plenty of consumers look at physician reviews online, but few write reviews or leave ratings, the survey revealed. And typically, it's the patients who are extremely happy or unhappy who post reviews, which can cause the results to be biased, explains Robert McLean, a rheumatologist and president of the American College of Physicians (ACP).
The key is to use the information in online reviews and ratings as “part of a larger picture,” the AHRQ's Meyers says, especially since health care needs are so individualized.
Pay attention to the reason behind the rating, and “recognize whether the person's issues are your own,” Meyers advises. If you don't need a doctor who speaks fluent Spanish, for example, a glowing review for a physician's ability to communicate in another language may not be helpful.
"If you're somebody who wants to get in and out fast because you don't like going to doctors’ offices and waiting, how much time the doctor spends with you might be less important” than finding a practitioner who doesn't keep his patients waiting, Meyers adds.
Reviews can also shed light on a physician's bedside manner, including how they answer patients’ questions. Still, comments rarely provide insight into a doctor's ability to diagnose and treat, Meyers says. That's when you should take your search offline.
Talk with people you know. Online research works best when it's complemented “by research we do in other ways,” Meyers says. Ask for recommendations from family and friends. Primary care docs, too, are great resources if you're looking for a specialist.
If a physician who was recommended by someone you know has a few negative online reviews, don't write her off just yet, McLean suggests. Ask your buddy if he experienced the same issue; it may be something minor enough to overlook, especially if the doctor has other qualities that match your needs.
"In the end, what you need is someone that you can develop … a long-standing, trusting relationship” with, especially if you have a severe or chronic illness, McLean says. “What you want to get out of the relationship is usually more than just transactional health advice.”
Give the doc a test run. It's hard to know if a doctor is going to be right for you until you meet him in person, Meyers says. Before your first visit, call the physician's office to make sure your insurance is accepted. It's not uncommon for information on a practice's website to be out of date.
Then draft a list of questions and concerns you want the provider to address, as patients who “go in with a list of questions tend to be more satisfied with the care they eventually receive,” Meyers points out.
If there are no red flags during the initial visit, schedule a follow-up to see how things go. “It's about developing that relationship over time, in person,” Meyers emphasizes.
That said, if you're less than impressed with the doctor or don't feel at ease, keep searching until you find the right one.