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More Patients Are Checking Doctor-Rating Web Sites

But just how trustworthy these reviews are isn't clear

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Aside from whether the current trend is good or bad, the reality is that "the next generation of health care consumers is going to be using online resources," said Ritu Agarwal, who directs the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Agarwal, who studies information technology and health care, said it's "encouraging" that most people in the current survey were aware that doctor-rating sites exist. She agreed that patient ratings are only one piece of information to consider when choosing a doctor -- but it can also be a useful piece.

"When I'm looking for a new dentist, I go online," Agarwal said.

Her colleague, Guodong Gao, said there are "multiple dimensions" to the concept of quality health care. "Online ratings provide one important dimension, which is the patient experience," he said.

Doctors aren't always thrilled by the thought of patient ratings, Hanauer noted. But they might not have a lot to worry about, at least so far. In their research, Agarwal and Gao have found that most online reviews are positive -- with no evidence that "disgruntled patients" dominate.

So at this point, Gao said, it seems that people are using the sites more as a way to recommend a doctor than to critique one.

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