Doctors should adapt to ratings

April 13, 2009

Practicing medicine has never been easy, but the profession is becoming particularly trying. Insurance companies are pounding down costs to the point that good factory managers make more money than some family doctors. Insurers also second-guess diagnoses and treatments, forcing some physicians to prescribe remedies they feel are inadequate.

As if doctors needed another Excedrin moment, patients now are lobbing criticisms at their doctors online.

While we can understand doctors' uneasiness with being put on the firing line, overall we welcome the trend.

For too long, consumers have had far too little information at their disposal to evaluate physicians. While many of the new ratings services are far from perfect, we believe they are a step in the right direction.

As IBJ reporter J.K. Wall reported last week and in this issue, doctors increasingly contend with barbs posted on such sites as RateMds.com, Vimo.com and Angie's List, the Indianapolis company that recently expanded its ratings services to doctors from its stock-in-trade of handymen, plumbers and other services.

Many of the comments are complimentary and supportive. Others, though, are meanspirited to the point of being counterproductive. One doctor is called a "quack" on RateMds despite operating what appears to be a reputable practice.

An Indianapolis plastic surgeon is suing a woman who calls him a "butcher" and promises to commit suicide on April 18, the anniversary of a face lift she says he botched.

Most of these comments, of course, are anonymous. And that's a big part of the problem.

Doctors and would-be patients have no assurance the "patient" isn't a disgruntled former employee, jealous neighbor or even a prankster.

The anonymous nature of comments seems to bring out the worst in people. While heartfelt, some of the sharpest words probably wouldn't be exchanged in a doctor's office or hospital. The Internet allows cowards to speak their minds, which can't be easy for the vast majority of physicians who show up day after day to try to improve lives.

So the ratings services have problems. But that's no excuse for some doctors to force patients to sign forms promising not to post comments.

The free exchange of information made possible by the Internet has great potential to help consumers make better-informed decisions about their health care. Car companies for years have worked under the microscope of such organizations as J.D. Power and Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, and consumers have benefited as a result.

Doctors must accept the reality that patients are joining insurers in determining the level of their skills. Ultimately, the free exchange of information creates better decisions.

As the rating services go through growing pains, consumers should take anonymous comments with a grain of salt and remember that physician referrals and word of mouth still are the best information.

To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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