How to Find the Right Doctor in the Age of Social Media --can you Trust Online Reviews?

Ask anyone over the age of 30, and they will tell you how different the world is with the internet, social media, and smartphones in our hands at all times.

While these devices and technologies have certainly made our lives easier, they’ve also added a level of complexity that never existed before.

And along the same lines--and in part due to these technologies--I’ve seen how practicing medicine in a small practice is a different beast and more challenging in the year 2018 than ever before.

Most of us become doctors because we want to help people, so much so that we swear a Hippocratic oath when we become physicians. There is nothing that brings me greater satisfaction than helping my patients find the answers and treatments they need and supporting them as they heal.

However, as each year passes, more and more of a doctor’s time is spent filling out copious amounts of paperwork, following up on rejected/delayed billing, and keeping up with the Joneses of social media and marketing efforts.

In fact, I’ve seen one of the most frustrating blows to being a solo practitioner come from social media and the internet.

When I first began practicing medicine, finding a doctor was all word of mouth. You talked to your friends or your current doctor for qualified referrals. Today, many people rely solely on the internet to find their doctors, especially here in the DC metro because our geographic area experiences a lot of turnover as political administrations come and go. It’s hard to find a native Washingtonian, and thus it’s hard to know which practices have stood the test of time and which are just starting up.

While platforms such as Zocdoc can be a valuable resource as you look to find a specialist or medical practitioner, they, unfortunately, can also serve to hinder the process of matching, both for doctors and patients.

When anyone with a computer and wifi access can share their “experience,” there are those who will, unfortunately, be untruthful or exaggerate a point about their experience, good or bad. As the reader and as a potential consumer or patient, I would hope you stop to evaluate the reviewer as well as their reviews. Was that really the “best chili in the world” or the “worst dining experience ever?” As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

It’s also important that you as a patient realize that while review sites were originally set up as a way to “vet” doctors, add transparency, and allow patients to share their experiences, scammers have found a way to prey on both patients and doctors. There are now bogus review sites that intentionally share untruthful information. They then ask doctors to pay to remove bad reviews.

There are also disgruntled people looking to forward their own agendas when what they want the doctor to say doesn’t match up with the true diagnosis. We see this more and more with the opioid epidemic on the rise. It’s a sad fact that there are individuals out there seeking to sabotage practices, dissuade other patients, and provide influence over independent medical examinations. I know it’s hard to believe, but there are some who even create fake accounts in order to post bad or misleading reviews.

My caution in using reviews is this: remember that reviews only tell part of the story, and one should not discount a doctor or a business based on a star rating. Read what is written and ask “Is this something I think someone I would give credibility to would say.” Not sure? Most review sites let you read other reviews from the reviewer. If that person has only left one review or if they are persistent in only giving 5s or 1s, consider the source more carefully.

It’s a fact that more people take time to post a bad review than a good one, and for those of us in the medical profession, that can be difficult to manage. Unlike hotels or fast food chains who have the option to respond to each and every review, depending on the circumstance, it can be against HIPPA regulations for a doctor to even respond back to the patient or provide context or explanation to the complaint.

Also, many doctors chose to address bad reviews offline and privately with the patient who wrote them. And while you might be thinking, “why can’t you just tell the review site that the reviews are fake” - there are terms of use that prevent most people from being able to remove these inflammatory remarks.

I believe you should use online reviews as a single part of the process of selecting a doctor. Just as an MRI doesn’t tell me the whole story on your neck and spine, a simple online review won’t provide you with the full context needed to make an informed decision.

When in doubt, ask a trusted friend or family member for connections they know. You can also trust your primary physician for recommendations, though depending on your insurance, they may be limited in whom they can recommend. When you have a “point” doctor for all of your needs, he or she has a greater insight into your health and life and can recommend someone to you.

Lastly, it’s important to find a doctor whose methodologies and practice jive with you and your lifestyle and personality. See how a doctor spends time with you, how they listen to you, and the counsel they offer. Our job as practitioners is not only to protect your health but to put our patients’ needs before our own. This means taking time to listen.

If a doctor’s immediate treatment suggestion is surgery, it might be best to get a second opinion. Although we are experts in surgical treatments, a doctor’s first response should be to discuss lifestyle changes and alternatives before immediately suggesting surgery, especially when surgery has been shown to be an ineffective treatment for lower lumbar pain.

As your doctors, we are here for you. Your health is the most important thing to us, and we want you to be satisfied patients, customers, and people. Without my patients I’d have no practice, and I am grateful for my time over the past 30 years spent helping each and every one of them.