Junkfood Science: Everyone says this doctor’s great

October 22, 2007

Everyone says this doctor’s great

Have you ever had a problem with a car, computer or appliance and gone online for help, only to come away feeling like a shmuck because everyone, it seems, has had a bad experience and is saying they’ll never buy that product again? It’s a common phenomenon that those with complaints do a lot of complaining. Every business owner knows that an unhappy customer will tell a bunch of people, whereas a happy one may tell one other, if you’re lucky. Bad publicity isn’t always good for business.

Similarly, when people are personally invested in a health treatment or believe in it, they'll often paint a rosy picture and not reveal the downsides.

These tendancies are difficult to overcome because so many people will base their health decisions and beliefs on what everyone else seems to be saying, even people they don't know. It's easy to mistake anecdotes, groupthink and consensus of opinions for facts and sound information.

That’s why doctors are concerned about a new plan by WellPoint health plans to publish online a Zagat Survey guide to their doctors, based patient comments and rankings on a 30-point scale considering things like their office environment and scheduling. The ratings guide won’t include information on medical expertise or malpractice convictions. It’s also different from another type of profiling based on a healthlplan’s viewpoint, such as UnitedHealthcare’s recent rating of doctors based on their claims data and compliance with healthplan performance measures.

Sadly, the popularity of a doctor and customer satisfaction are not always the best measures of the best quality of medical care and expertise.

As USA Today reports, WellPoint is the largest insurer to partner with Zagat for such a project. Today’s news offers some helpful cautions for consumers:

WellPoint doctors to get Zagat ratings

One of the nation's largest health insurers, WellPoint, has teamed with Zagat Survey to let patients rate their doctors, just as diners rate restaurants in Zagat's burgundy-colored guides...the ratings guide will consider trust, communication, availability and office environment. In addition to giving doctors a numerical score based on a 30-point scale, the site will include comments from patients...

Still, efforts to rate doctors have brought controversy. Another type of doctor ranking, in which insurers use claims data and other methods to evaluate doctors on cost and quality, has led to lawsuits from doctor groups and warnings to insurers from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who says the ranking efforts may be misleading or designed to steer patients mainly on cost. WellPoint, whose Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield subsidiary is among those being reviewed by Cuomo, says its Zagat survey is unlike the doctor rankings.... WellPoint says its Zagat survey will not include information about medical expertise or other factors, such as malpractice settlements....

“The fact that a doctor might have a friendly administrator at the front desk is meaningless if they have a high medical-error rate," says Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights. Disgruntled patients are more likely to submit a survey than happy ones, says physician Jim King, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Still, he's not too concerned. “In my small town, it's word-of-mouth," King says. “If someone uses this survey intelligently to make a short list of doctors to interview, that's OK. But they still need to depend on their own personal opinion."

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