Almost 60 percent of consumers say that they use online reviews when choosing a new healthcare provider. But a new study in the medical journal JAMA found that most sites that provide these reviews don't offer nearly enough data to be useful to consumers.  

As CR has previously reported, even with an unprecedented amount of medical information right at our fingertips, it's surprisingly difficult to find basic information about doctors, including whether they have ever been disciplined for serious infractions.

While sites like Healthgrades, RateMDs, Vital, and Yelp offer some of the most accessible sources of information for consumers, they're also riddled with limitations. Their ratings are based almost entirely on customer reviews; they don't generally check doctors' records with state medical boards or other sources. And according to the new research, they're also short on actual ratings. 

"These sites just haven't emerged as a way for patients to find information about their physicians" says Tara Lagu, M.D., the study's lead author and a physician at the Center for Quality of Care Research at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. "In ten years, none of them have amassed enough reviews to be useful."

Study authors searched 28 physician-rating websites for reviews of 600 randomly selected doctors in one of three major metropolitan areas: Boston, Dallas, and Portland, Ore. They found slightly more than 8,000 reviews in all.

That number is less impressive than it sounds: One-third of the doctors didn’t have any reviews on any of the sites. Most of the rest had no more than one review. And for those who did have more than one, the median number of reviews was seven—across all 28 sites. 

Those figures are slightly higher than ones from a similar study done in 2009, where the same team of researchers found less than 200 reviews for a total of 300 doctors across 33 sites. But the study authors say that that increase isn't enough to change the bottom line: It's nearly impossible for consumers to properly evaluate prospective doctors using online doctor ratings. 

Lagu says that consumers flock to these websites in part because publicly reported information on healthcare quality isn't available at the physician level. But so far, many more people seem to be looking for reviews than posting them. "Rating your doctor is not like rating a restaurant or a hotel," Lagu says. "It's a person who knows intimate details about your life. It's relationship that many people don't want to jeopardize." 

Newer approaches to rating doctors are emerging: some from within the healthcare industry itself, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. 

For example, instead of leaving their reviews to sites such as Yelp, some healthcare providers are surveying patients themselves and then making all that information available on their own websites. This approach tends to yield many more reviews than commercial sites like Yelp have managed to amass. But those reviews are controlled by individual healthcare systems, which makes it difficult to guard against bias or to compare doctors between different systems. 

Ultimately, Lagu says, the best rating method will involve what she calls "systematic data collection," where patients are routinely surveyed about their experiences and are encouraged by their doctors to be completely frank in their assessments. "The way to make ratings work is to make patients understand that honest feedback helps us improve," she says. 

See CR's guide for advice on how to chose the right doctor.