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How to interpret online doctor reviews

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Many people rely on websites like Yelp or Vitals when looking for a new doctor or specialist. However, while online reviews can be useful, they tend to skew negative (which is true for reviews of businesses or professionals more than for restaurants or books). And people take these ratings to heart – about 70 percent of people said they would not use a business or person if they found negative reviews about them, according to a survey by Harris Interactive for Intelius.

Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, offers the following tips for assessing physician reviews. 

Look for truth in numbers
“A complete picture doesn’t come out unless you have a lot of reviews over an extended period of time,” Fertik said. The more reviews, the better. It’s tough to know whether one unhappy - or happy - patient truly represents a doctor’s capabilities and personality. The doctor, or staff, could have had a bad day, or perhaps the reviewer was just a difficult patient. Look for physicians who are discussed frequently—they are usually more liked. If you only see a few reviews, try other review sites or just don’t put too much stock in the reviews you do see.

Consider what matters to you
Look at the content in the reviews. Is a doctor getting only three stars because the patient had to wait 45 minutes, or the receptionist was rude? Or was the patient misdiagnosed? Did the doctor have poor bedside manner? Think about how important each of these factors is to you. If you need surgery, you may be more concerned with the surgeon’s operating room skills than his or her bedside manner. 

Who is the reviewer reviewing? 
Doctors often get blamed for others in their practice—the receptionist, the nurses and even other doctors. A reviewer might dislike one doctor, but then go on to generalize about the entire practice in his or her review. When you read online reviews, make sure you are clear on what caused the reviewer's bad experience.

Don’t just count stars 
Many people rate doctors using the one-to-five star rating system provided by some websites, without leaving any comments.  Look for actual comments to gain a better understanding of what was behind a reviewer’s scoring—and what he or she liked and disliked about the doctor.

Look out for venting 
The Internet provides a place to vent anger publicly. But when someone is angry, they may provide a very skewed and intentionally damaging review. Try to pick up on a commenter’s tone, said Fertik. 

“Does the person sound reasonable and balanced or do they seem like they have an axe to grind?” he said.  It’s not that you should disregard the comment, but you should definitely get other opinions. Remember that doctors are not infallible, and people do have complications from procedures,regardless of the doctor's skill level.

Look for alternative recommendations 
Reach out to your “friends” on Facebook or on community website forums to get referrals from people you know. But the same rules still apply—the more reviews the better and watch out for venting.

Help the M.D.s you love 
Since most reviews skew towards the negative, help your doctor out by posting a positive one. 

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist whose work appears in the New York Times, among other national magazines and websites. She blogs about the Affordable Care Act for the WellBeeFile. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.