Although online health care rating and review services — Vitals, Angie's List, Yelp, RateMDs and others — continue to proliferate, it is easy to dismiss them because they include so few reviews, their methodology is flawed or their credibility is suspect.
But consumers are being trained to shop for health care services, and health care executives who ignore their demand for comparative information do so at their peril.
"The transparency train has left the station," says Barbra Rabson, executive director of Massachusetts Health Quality Partners. "It's really important that physicians and hospitals be involved in getting this information to the public."
MHQP, a coalition of hospitals, physicians, health plans and other stakeholders, has been collecting data for patient experience measures and posting online ratings — specific to medical groups, not individual physicians — since 2006. When its ratings for nearly 500 primary care practices were published in Consumer Reports last year, the level of interest became clear: The magazine's newsstand sales in Massachusetts for that issue more than doubled the usual volume.
Similar trends are emerging nationwide. Consumer Reports last year published hospital safety ratings, based on Hospital Compare and other data, and reader feedback was startling, says John Santa, M.D., director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. "For the first time, we got over a few percent of our subscribers saying they are planning to change hospitals after reading the hospital safety ratings story," he says.
A 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers Health Research Institute survey offers more quantitative evidence: Just half of consumers have read health care reviews but, of those, 68 percent used them to decide where to get care.
Since ratings and reviews are going to be available — and used for decision-making — health care executives should help make reliable information easily accessible to the public, Rabson says. Physicians were defensive and apprehensive when MHQP started its work 15 years ago. But as they collaborated with other MHQP stakeholders to develop measures, they gained respect for their worth and started improving their own scores — and that has improved statewide performance.
"Seeing how you perform compared with your peers is a great motivator for improvement," she says. "There have been improvements on all different dimensions of care. Communication scores have gone up, integration of care scores have gone up, knowledge of the patient has gone up and access to care has gone up."