RateMDs is the Yelp for doctors in North America. Online ratings are one of the most trusted sources of information today, and many of us are accustomed to do a quick check before going to a movie, a restaurant, and almost any other leisurely activity. In many ways, the presence of an online reputation has raised the bar for customer service and product integrity. Are doctors any different?
Online Reviews: The Good
Online reviews are one of the marvels of the Internet. The majority of review sites are free for users and provide a well-trusted and reliable source of information about a product or service. They have also raised the standard of service and quality of products across the board due to the ease in which consumers can affect a business’s reputation much more reliably than something like the Better Business Bureau. Online reviews have become so ubiquitous and influential in reputation building that it has forced companies from various industries to step up their game.
Long before the Internet, advertisers have known that word of mouth is one of the most powerful endorsements of a product or service. A paid actor can’t match the authenticity of a friend, family, or stranger’s honest opinion. The Internet’s reach is wide and instantaneous. Today, these sites are one of the best examples of the wisdom of the masses. It’s the word of mouth authenticity, at scale.
Online Reviews: The Bad
Data aggregation is an imperfect system. For starters, anyone can post anything. There is no requirement to be a customer or to have ever tried a service to post a review. Naturally, various interested parties such as the owner, a competitor, or an irate customer can write anything, true or not. It’s also not that hard to create a fake customer – generally, all it takes is a throwaway email address. Online reviews have become so influential that a new industry called reputation management has propped up.
While different review platforms have different safeguards against fake reviews, there is no perfect system that can distinguish between an authentic or paid review, and fake reviews can and do influence scores. While this is less of a problem when there are large sample sizes of reviews, for more niche markets, where the number of reviews is limited, fake reviews present a much more serious problem.
Online Reviews: The Ugly
Yelp has been accused of extortion on numerous occasions by various businesses. At least in court, Yelp has won but in a rather pyrrhic way – the courts have ruled that websites are allowed to manipulate reviews! Yelp has denied manipulating reviews, but unsurprisingly, many business owners remain unconvinced. Regardless of the truth of the matter, the underlying problem lies in the incentive structure of online reviews. Review sites need to make money through advertisements, and yet, those buying the ads are the businesses that are the ones being reviewed. This conflict of interest isn’t an easy problem to untangle.
In the case of RateMDs, they openly advertise the option to hide up to 3 reviews for their paid “promoted levels” practices. While the review score still counts toward the average, the reviewer’s comments become invisible to a user.
How to Think About RateMDs
Simply understanding the system and the limitations that it has can help you make better judgments. If a restaurant that’s been open for 3 years has a 5-star review based on 4 reviews with over-the-top praise in the comment section, perhaps the one with 1000 reviews with an average of 4.6 stars is the better one go to. As with anything, you need to use your judgment. There are, however, some aspects of RateMDs that are uniquely different from other review websites.
- Due to doctor/patient confidentiality, a doctor is limited in his or her ability to respond to criticism (or praise).
- Businesses are expected to market themselves. While this business model has some parallels in the United States’ health care system, at least in Canada, doctors aren’t expected to do this.
- Most practices will have an extremely small number of reviews compared to a restaurant in a populous city on Yelp. Small sample sizes add disproportionate weight to those who have exceptional experiences (good or bad).1
- Reviews tend to focus on the service aspect (office, front desk, reception, assistants, bedside manner, punctuality). These are frequently the only qualities that a patient can measure, but these aren’t the only criteria when evaluating a physician.
- Patients have no way to know whether a doctor has paid to remove negative reviews or not.
This doesn’t mean that RateMDs isn’t useful, however. It just means that you need to be aware of the meaningful differences between a restaurant review and a doctor review. You need to decide what’s most relevant to you. If a cosmetic dermatologist has consistent complaints about not listening to patients or doesn’t seem to have time and patience in explaining details, these are likely serious red flags, given that communication is paramount. If a family doctor in a rural town in Canada has negative reviews because they aren’t punctual or don’t give patients enough time, you might be looking at a different situation. This doctor is much more likely to be overextended, being one of the few (or only) doctors available in the community and doing his or her best to serve the community.
Here are some tips in using RateMDs:
- Focus on the comments rather than the rating. This is especially true if the total sample size is small. This is often the case for doctors in smaller communities.
- Don’t over-emphasize bedside manner unless it’s of primary concern to you. However, for cosmetic dermatology, these elements become more important as it’s much more important to connect with your doctor.
- Don’t expect doctors or their staff to respond to comments as you might for restaurant owners. Patient-doctor relations and privacy matters can come into play, and doctors can face repercussions from their College and face legal consequences.
1This is in addition to a known bias with review sites, which skew strongly towards extreme reviews since those who have average experiences are less likely to bother writing reviews in the first place.