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Demystifying Doctor and Hospital Ratings

Demystifying Doctor and Hospital Ratings

When looking at online doctor ratings sites, consider the source

By Leigh Page

With thousands of doctors and more than 100 hospitals in the Chicago area, it can get pretty tricky to choose the best physician for your needs. Healthcare consumers are increasingly turning to online rating sites, but those options are just as dizzying, with dozens of websites that rate hospitals and physicians.

Some sites present just the facts: a doctor’s medical education, board certification, hospital affiliation and health plan affiliation. Others may give information about safety or patient satisfaction. But how do you sort out the best from the rest?

“Because physician-rating sites have very different approaches, it’s important to consult a variety of them,” says Carol Cronin, executive director of the Informed Patient Institute (informedpatientinstitute.org) in Annapolis, Md., which rates the sites, including some specific to the Chicago area.

Also, she advises, “Supplement the rankings with your own research.” For example, perform a web search to see if any negative reports come up for a provider.

Hospital-rating sites measure different factors 

Hospital-rating sites, in particular, tend to choose wildly different favorites, so it helps to know what each is measuring.

If you are interested in what doctors think about hospitals, consult rankings by U.S. News and World Report (health.usnews.com/best-hospitals). About one-third of its scoring involves doctors’ assessments, which favor large teaching hospitals that treat unusual conditions. Northwestern Memorial Hospital ranks No. 1 here.

But if you don’t have an unusual disease, and your main concern is avoiding errors and infections, you may want to consult the Healthgrades (healthgrades.com) and Hospital Safety Score (hospitalsafetyscore.org) websites, which focus on patient safety data. On these sites, community hospitals like Central DuPage Hospital perform very well.

If you want to know how patients are treated, consult NerdWallet (nerdwallet.com/health), which bases its rankings on patient satisfaction surveys. 

Both patient safety and satisfaction data are listed for hospitals on the Illinois Hospital Report Card (healthcarereportcard.illinois.gov), compiled by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Most hospital-rating sites don’t rate specific services, such as heart or knee surgery. “The quality of different services and specialties may vary widely within the same hospital,” Cronin says. U.S. News is one of the few sites to address this problem, ranking Chicago hospitals by 16 different services.

“Another shortcoming is that none of the rating sites examines prices,” Cronin points out, because prices vary by insurer, and hospitals are reluctant to reveal their prices.

Doctor-rating sites mostly rely on patients’ assessments 

Unlike sites that rate hospitals, physician-rating sites don’t have objective data on which to rely.

“It’s hard to get objective quality data on physicians, so doctor-rating sites tend to be based on subjective assessments,” says David A. Hanauer, MD, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, who published a recent study in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) about ratings websites.

In Castle Connolly’s Top Doctor listings (castleconnolly.com), individual physicians vote on the doctors they consider the best in their fields—an approach that works particularly well if you are looking for a professional consensus.

Most sites, however, focus on consumer ratings, which deal with issues like rapport with patients, wait times and time spent with the doctor. Such issues might seem superficial, but studies have linked them to the quality of care.

Simple rating sites like Yelp display reviews, which can be quite detailed, along with ratings on a one-to-five scale. Healthgrades and BookOfDoctors.com go further, asking reviewers to answer a basic set of questions about how they were treated, which allows users to compare physicians on standard categories.

“One problem, however, is that such sites tend to have only a few ratings per doctor, so the results can easily be skewed,” Hanauer says. “Since comments can usually be posted anonymously, a doctor’s office could flood a site with favorable reviews,” he adds.

Despite the drawbacks, online physician- and hospital-rating sites provide useful information as long as users are aware of the limitations and sources of information. Just as we research a major purchase, consumers should thoroughly research healthcare choices, realizing that the stakes are even higher.

Hanauer recommends researching multiple sites as well as the tried-and-true practice of consulting with friends and family. “Choosing a doctor is more important than choosing a restaurant or TV set,” he says.

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