In today’s world, we have come to depend on online reviews for almost every consumer decision we make.  When choosing anything from apparel to restaurants, we seek out the opinions of our peers online.  One study found that 72 percent of consumers give the same weight to online reviews as they do to personal recommendations.

Doctor reviews also play a role for consumers, or in this case, patients.  Patients want trustworthy consumer feedback about health care providers.  But doctor reviews are only helpful if you interpret them correctly.  Patients need to interpret online reviews in a balanced and thoughtful way.   Misunderstanding a doctor review can be a serious detriment.

Here are ways to navigate your course:

Consider the source

The first step is to consider the source, because not all physician review sites are created equal. Know the difference between open-loop and closed-loop services, and take reviews on the former sites with a grain of salt.

Open-loop review services allow anyone to rate a doctor.  The problem with this arrangement is that it allows literally anyone to rate a doctor.  If you are looking at a positive review on an open-loop review site, look to see if it was actually left by a happy patient or if it was written by the practice itself in an attempt to boost its reputation..  Were the negative comments left by dissatisfied patients or by one of the physician’s competitors?

Closed-loop review services do the opposite.  These forums “close the loop” by verifying the identity of each reviewer.  On ZocDoc – a great, free website that people use to find a nearby doctor and instantly book an appointment online – only patients who have booked an appointment online through ZocDoc and have seen the doctor can leave a review. This means the comments are fundamentally trustworthy in a way that’s not possible anywhere else.

Selection bias

There is a selection bias among people who go online to write a review.  Not unlike parents who punish their children when they misbehave and do not reward them for positive behavior, most people who have a pleasant experience do not think to document it and give positive reinforcement online.  However, if a patient has a bad experience, they are much more apt to want to publicize their experience.

This creates a biased sampling.  For example, a physician may have 200 wonderful patient interactions and one bad one; if all you see is that one bad one, you will not have an accurate reflection of the doctor.

Look at the stats and beware of outliers

If you are interested in a doctor whose overall score isn’t great, take a moment to see how many ratings he or she has.  When there are only a few, it’s much easier for an outlier – a single patient who is unhappy and venting – to bring down the whole score.  Even terrific health care providers are likely to end up with a few of these outliers.  That’s why more ratings often mean a more balanced and representative score.

Actually read them

When you are reading doctor reviews online, actually read them. Don’t just look at a health care professional’s overall star rating, because it may be affected by factors that aren’t very important to you.

Assess based on your needs and expectations

On ZocDoc, for instance, patients rate providers in several categories, including bedside manner and wait time.  It’s not uncommon for doctors to perform worse in one category and better in another.  So before you screen out that physician with a mediocre star rating, read the individual reviews and see why patients are displeased. You might not share their values – or their expectations. You may want a doctor with great bedside manner, but disagree wildly on what that means.

Look beyond the reviews at the credentials as well

While you are reading into the doctor’s profile, don’t forget to look over his or her background, education, awards and recognitions, and so on.  This is an essential part of narrowing down what you actually want in a doctor, so you can interpret ratings and reviews in a helpful way.

Finally, give back

There is a bonus fourth step that I would encourage you to take: give back.  Leave an online review of your physician for the next patient.  Recording a few details – even if they don’t seem useful – can be very important to others.  We are all looking for different things in a doctor, and we all need other patients to help us get there.