Poor customer service and bedside manner were the biggest complaints of patients that use online review sites, according to a study by Vanguard Communications, a medical marketing and public relations firm.
Surprisingly, the issue of poor medical skills took a backseat to poor customer service and bedside manner, which were concerns for four times the number of patients, according to the study released April 30. Examples of medical skill complaints included a pierced colon during a colonoscopy, a false diagnosis of diabetes and a misdiagnosis of cancer as a cyst.
Complaints about doctor indifference and bedside manner comprised 43.1 percent of the poor reviews, and 21.5 percent of the negative marks highlighted a lack of physician skills.
Meanwhile, poor customer service accounted for 35.3 percent of the gripes. These included comments about staff rudeness, erroneous billing, unprofessional dress and facilities not being hygienic.
The survey looked at responses from patients on Websites such as Vitals.com, RateMDs.com and Yelp.com. Vitals.com allows users to rate doctors and shop for health insurance using an iPhone application and weighs patient reviews most heavily in its listings.
Of the reviews studied, 1,916 or 53 percent scored two stars or less out of a maximum of four or five stars, according to the report.
The use of online review sites to evaluate doctors shows a "democratization" of the health care industry through the use of Web 2.0 services, Ron Harman King, CEO of Vanguard Communications and author of the book "The Totally Wired Doctor," told eWEEK in an email.
Health care has turned into "more of a conversation," according to King. "That's exactly what you're seeing on these rate-your-doctor Websites—an incessant conversation among millions of health-care consumers," he said. "Bottom line, technology means the modern patient has a bigger choice and a bigger voice."
King noted how health-care consumers can now shop for drugs, surgeries, health care treatment and doctors regardless of their location. He cited the ability for "server-side scripting" to allow multiple conversations to take place on the Internet.
However, online review sites could be prone to fake reviews from competing doctors, King noted.
"We've had physician clients that appear to have been attacked by competing doctors in the same city posing as disaffected patients of the attacked doctor," King said. "That's a trade-off of free speech. However, I say the public is largely served well by more public discussion of this sort despite the abuses, which tend to be a small minority of comments, in my experience."
Vanguard's study also exposed flaws of health care review sites that have separate listings for a doctor's multiple locations. This approach could mean six to eight listings for one doctor, King noted.
"The record for our clients is 13; we had one client medical practice that had that many listings on one rate-your-doctor Website," King said. "It was a bear to untangle and consolidate all those. It took us months."
For its study, Vanguard evaluated 3,617 online reviews of doctors in four U.S. cities.
Because of the level of negativity in patient complaints, many doctors have sued patients and/or Website publishers for making the grievances public, according to Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman.
Many of these cases have involved sites such as CitySearch, DoctorScorecard and Yelp.
Doctors rarely win these lawsuits and sometimes must pay their patients' attorney fees, he told eWEEK in an email.
"For those reasons and others, I strongly believe it's never a good idea for doctors to sue their patients for their online reviews (or anything else, for that matter)," he said. "As a practical matter, I don't see any indications that patients are reluctant to review their doctors, but that may reflect the patients' lack of knowledge about the potential consequences."