The problem with Healthgrades, Vitals, Yelp and other Internet complaint boards

Dr. Gus Varnavas philosophically believes that the best healthcare comes from an educated healthcare consumer who researches what may be causing symptoms and the possible non-surgical treatment options that can help a person back to activity as quickly as possible.

Understanding how to use the Internet as a source of information is a challenge, however. While the Internet can hold a tremendous amount of helpful information, it can equally hold a lot of bad information that can confuse and mislead a healthcare consumer. This educational site for Gus Varnavas MD has information that is mainstream information about spine, the causes of back and neck pain, and when you need to see a doctor to avoid permanent complications. 

For example, a person planning a long trip might use TripAdvisor to access other traveler's comments and opinions about hotels, resorts and restaurants. Same for using Yelp to get another’s opinion about where to go for a burger. 

But is a person's rating of a meal the same as that person’s ability to understand diagnosis and treatment of complex neurological disorders? Or when a prescription for pain-killing narcotics may cause more damage than other treatments?

Fact: While patients may request pain-relieving narcotics, the spine specialist knows from experience that using drugs to mask symptoms cures nothing, and in many cases creates a larger problem related to dependence on such drugs. It’s always better to identify the pain generator and resolve that problem, rather than masking it with drugs that cure nothing. Still, the patient who is determined to be told what they want to hear, or is denied narcotics, can be vindictive and intent on slandering a physician online.

This leads to the very problematic issue of Internet complaint boards like Healthgrades, Vitals and RateMDs that have emerged over the last five years under the disguise of trying to help patients select better doctors.

Patients may be surprised to learn that these boards often publish incorrect information about a physician, and at the same time prevent a physician from easily correcting it because they don’t answer the phone or have any staff dedicated to human interaction. Some of these boards are simply in the business of selling advertising, and have little interest in the accuracy of posts. If a physician or his staff eventually succeed in contacting a human to correct information or remove a slanderous post, they typically cite that legally that can post whatever they like and have no obligation to change anything.

Instead of providing quality indicators, they have only succeeded in soliciting eyeballs for the online advertising they sell, which is how they make their money. The problem is that they are confusing patients.  Case in point: One survey found that 62 percent of patients are using online reviews in complaint boards as their first step in choosing a doctor, and 19 percent use complaint boards like YELP, Vitals, Healthgrades and RateMDs to validate their choice before making an appointment.

Unfortunately, however, studies are now revealing that such complaint boards are not indicators of physician quality simply because consumers don’t have the data to judge quality of medical care.

A recent 2017 study conducted by ConsumerMedical, a leading health care decision support company, revealed that there may actually be an INVERSE correlation to quality as featured by complaint boards. 

The ConsumerMedical study found that vast majority of top-rated specialty physicians on Yelp, Vitals and Healthgrades are NOT the highest ranked physicians when it comes to examining actual clinical outcome data related to their medical specialty.

In the study, ConsumerMedical identified the top 10 ranked physicians on YELP, Vitals and Healthgrades across five common specialties in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They then compared these complaint board rankings to a list of the 10 physicians with the highest clinical outcome scores in the same cities. The ConsumerMedical clinical ranking was based on more than 5 billion data points that measure physician performance on variables such as: patient readmission rates; surgical infection rates; average length of stay; procedure volume; and functional status outcomes. Only 2 percent of physicians ranked as top 10 by Yelp, Vitals and Healthgrades showed up as top performers when examining actual clinical outcomes.

“This research confirms what we have long suspected,” concludes David Hines, CEO of ConsumerMedical. “Online patient reviews tend to reflect a patient’s care experiences, such as the physician’s bedside manner. While these attributes are important, they are simply not the main indicators of a physician’s overall quality; sadly you can have a very kind orthopedic surgeon whose patients have hospital readmission rates that are through the roof.” 

So the healthcare consumer needs to be mindful that complaint boards indicate merely the bedside manner of the physician rather than quality of care.

In this respect, we advise the healthcare consumer to be aware that not all information they find on the Internet is accurate or helpful, and some of it can be, in fact, misleading.


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Need an Appointment?

Gus Varnavas, MD — at Community Hospital of Anaconda — specializes in the treatment of back and neck pain and strives to help people return to activity. Request an appointment with Dr. Varnavas in his office in Anaconda, MT.