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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Ratings for urologists on doctor review websites were typically positive in a new analysis, but on average each doctor had only two or three patient scores.
That suggests that although a little poking around online may be useful for people wondering about a new doctor, users should be cautious about how much to read into such limited information, researchers said.
"The biggest stumbling block at present for these sites to really be useful for patients is just the very limited number of reviews that exist," said Dr. Peter Lindenauer of Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, who has studied the review sites but wasn't involved in the new research.
What's more, he told Reuters Health, "You need to be aware that these websites are not regulated - there's no verification that the patients were actually patients." Nor are they a "random sample" that represents everyone who sees a given doctor, he added.
Previous studies have analyzed these rating sites across the board, but for the new report, researchers from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois wanted to look at how urologists, in particular, were reviewed. Urologists specialize in disorders of the urinary tract in men and women, and genital problems in men.
The research team analyzed ratings of 500 U.S. urologists on 10 popular physician review websites, including Healthgrades.com, Vitals.com and RateMDs.com.
Healthgrades.com is the most popular review website, the study team noted, with 7 million visits each month.
Almost 80 percent of urologists had at least one rating on any of those pages, and the number of ratings across sites ranged from zero to 64 per doctor.
The average score, on a scale of 0 to 1, was 0.81 for male doctors and 0.82 for female doctors. But those were based on an average of just 2.4 patient ratings each, Dr. Chandy Ellimoottil and his colleagues reported in The Journal of Urology.
"It's certainly worth taking a look to see what's out there if there's a physician you're considering going to," Lindenauer said. But, "Right now it's a bit of a mess, with a large number of competing sites."
Dr. Guodong Gao, from the University of Maryland's Center for Health Information and Decision Systems in College Park, agreed.
"It's a little bit hard to tell actually the quality of the physician, just based on that small sample," said Gao, who also didn't participate in the study. "Users should be cautious."
In a smaller analysis, the research team found written reviews for 36 of 80 randomly selected doctors on one of those sites - and the majority of those were positive as well.
Gao told Reuters Health the findings are good news for doctors, some of whom have been concerned about unregulated ratings online and even filed lawsuits against negative reviewers.
"It's really reassuring that they find the ratings are mostly positive, and not that extreme," Gao said.
"This can help ease some of the worries from the physician community that these ratings are just for unhappy patients to vent their anger."
SOURCE: bit.ly/Y2lRYt The Journal of Urology, online December 10, 2012.