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Online doctor reviews: Are they healthy or not?

CHICAGO — Doctor ratings are less popular than those of toasters, cars and movies when it comes to online consumer sites. That’s according to a survey that found most adults hadn’t checked online physician reviews — and most said a conveniently located office and accepting patients’ health insurance was more important.

Still, the sites do appear to be swaying opinions. About a third of patients who viewed online sites sought out or avoided physicians based on their ratings.

Doctor ratings have gained popularity since earlier surveys. That’s a concern since there’s no way to know if a review is real or fake, or what might have motivated the reviewer, said lead author Dr. David Hanauer, a pediatrician and associate professor at the University of Michigan.

Consumer reviews of doctors’ can be found on dozens of online sites, including some that only rate doctors and others like yelp.com that cover a panoply of goods and services. Most reviewers don’t include their full names or remain anonymous.

Some doctors who oppose the idea make their patients sign “gag orders” agreeing not to post comments about them online. Hanauer said he doesn’t do that. He added that he hasn’t found any reviews of himself online. The American Medical Association — the nation’s largest physicians’ group — is wary of the sites.

“Anonymous online opinions of physicians should be taken with a grain of salt, and should certainly not be a patient’s sole source of information when looking for a new physician,” Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven, AMA’s president, said in a statement.

Hanauer questioned whether doctors should be subject to “crowdsourced” reviews like other commodities. He said doctors risk getting bad reviews for sound medical advice simply because patients don’t agree with it. For example, antibiotics only fight bacteria but parents often want pediatricians to prescribe them for kids’ colds or other viruses. Doctors’ refusals might result in a bad review, but that would be misleading, he said.

Roberta Clarke, a Boston University health care marketing specialist, said there’s no reason that doctors shouldn’t be the focus of consumer reviews, but that online sites need to do a better job of providing meaningful information.

There are no standards, some sites charge a fee to look at doctor reviews, and sites that use stars or checkmarks don’t always explain what’s being rated, Clarke said.

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