In our ever-evolving healthcare system, patients today are faced with more decisions than ever in trying to find the right doctor. While it is common practice for either a primary care doctor to refer patients to a specialist, or family members and friends to weigh in, many people are turning to the web in search of doctor reviews and ratings.

In a world of growing consumerism and sights like Yelp and Angie’s List, patients are gaining a stronger voice and opinion, but consumers should beware of what ratings can really reveal. 

Here are the key issues to keep in mind: 

1. Bedside manner:  

One of the most important things doctors learn in medical school is how to treat patients -- not just medically, but also socially. Empathy and sympathy are key. There is no greater virtue in medicine than listening. Online reviews can often clue you in to a doctor’s attitude, and subjective measures from patient experiences can provide reasonable insight into bedside manner.  

2. Wait times:  

In a recent survey conducted by Software Advice, 25 percent of respondents cited wait times as an important factor in reviewing and rating doctors. The problem is that in order for these scores to be reliable, one requires an adequate sample of data for the results to be significant. It’s not enough to jump to conclusions when your doctor has only a handful of reviews. Furthermore, wait times may also be a reflection of the support staff, and the ratings may not necessarily be indicative of the doctors themselves.

3. Credentials:  

In the same survey, accurate diagnosis took the top spot as an important variable in how patients rate doctors. Understanding a doctor’s board certification and quality metrics are important, but not always covered by every consumer site who lacks the data. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation there are about 50 different efforts underway to look at physician quality. Evaluating quality is an extremely tricky exercise, and without adequate knowledge it is possible for consumers to jump to conclusions.

4. Practice Patterns:    

As consumers become more savvy in evaluating doctors, another important metric as a measure of experience is looking at volume, especially in surgical specialties. Most sites that are popular for online physician reviews do not have adequate data on the volume of procedures that a doctor performs, which is usually a pretty good measure of experience. Patients are reluctant to go to surgeons who don’t perform procedures often enough. Subjective ratings of doctors often don’t reveal these kinds of nuances that are important in the broader context.    

5. Patient Profile: 

It is not uncommon for some tertiary academic medical centers that see complicated patients to have very long wait times. The reason is that sicker patients often require a more thorough evaluation during their visit. If one were to look at patient ratings in a silo, without factoring in the kinds of patients that the doctor sees, the results could be misleading.

There is no doubt that measuring the performance of doctors is gaining momentum. As new ways to bring together vast data to provide the public with a better perspective on doctors emerge, it’s important that consumers put these ratings in context, and not jump to conclusions. After all, a patient would not want their doctor to jump to conclusions about a diagnosis without having assimilated all of the facts, and the converse remains just as true.

Dr. Sreedhar Potarazu is an acclaimed ophthalmologist and entrepreneur who has been recognized as an international visionary in the business of medicine and health information technology. He is the founder of VitalSpring Technologies Inc., a privately held enterprise software company focused on providing employers with applications to empower them to become more sophisticated purchasers of health care. Dr. Potarazu is the founder and chairman of WellZone, a social platform for driving consumer engagement in health.