Don’t Rely on Web Sites for 9 Out of 10 Doctors

“I searched the Web and found a doctor who’s great,” my neighbor told me as he picked up the phone to call for an appointment. “Good luck!” I offered, and muttered to myself, “You’ll need it.”

He won’t get any more of a reliable selection from reviewing Web sites than he might from, say, phonebook listings or a hospital referral service. All three of these sources, by the way, eat dirt when it comes to finding a doctor.

The Internet may be more convenient and colorful and may provide more information than phonebooks or hospital referral services, but that doesn’t make it reliable or true. All three can also be extremely misleading.

Yellow-page ads and listings are of course paid for; hospital referral services only offer names of doctors who have “privileges” at that hospital (not always the best doctors). And, since you’re reading this, you already know about truth in Web sites.

I did ask my neighbor that since it’s his body that’s going to be poked, probed, and prescribed to — not the doctor’s nor those of the people at his insurance company or HMO or those Web sites — might not that justify some additional research?

It seems to me that while we question and labor intensively over the purchase of an appliance or a new food product or golf club or pair of shoes, most of us are content with making seat-of-the-pants decisions about selecting a doctor — for reasons that have to do with what the doctor has paid to have said about herself or himself in an ad, commercial, or Web site.

The bottom line is that if we don’t want last-resort treatment as a first option, we need to take initiative to explore the prospects of partnering with potential healthcare providers as well as to investigate alternative healthcare avenues.

We should start by acknowledging that no matter what grandma says, the doctor is not a god. In fact, 9 out of 10 doctors are not even exceptional. This, from firsthand experiences working up close with nearly 2,000 doctors. But if you think about it, probably only 1 out of 10 in any profession is exceptional (retailers, police officers, teachers, truckers, artists, lawyers, accountants, secretaries, realtors, programmers, actors, farmers, consultants, athletes, you name it), so why should doctors be any different?

Because they’re dedicated to their jobs? Some are, sure. So are some landscapers, firefighters, and waitresses. Because they make more money and have more training than most people? Nice try, but money and training don’t ensure performance.

With just 1 out of 10 being exceptional, odds are that 2 out of 10 are good, and that the other 7 are average or worse — a sea of mediocrity. Disconcerting news if you’re in pursuit of quick medical care.

Which brings us back to the Internet. Can you find a surgeon’s Web site that shows his or her annual patient mortality rate and the number, type, and degree of difficulty of actual surgical procedures performed?

Can you identify a doctor whose Web site discusses his or her approach to bedside manners and addresses the level of respect routinely afforded to patients and their families? What about some honest comments from nurses and other doctors attesting to firsthand knowledge of the Web site doctor’s performance?

Don’t be ridiculous, you say. Doctors wouldn’t do that. Businesses don’t even do that. Ah, but businesses don’t generally save, risk, and ruin people’s lives as a matter of procedure.

So what exactly is a doctor’s Web site good for anyway? As is the case for every other business, the Internet and its Web sites are simply tools. So when you’re looking for a doctor, by all means check the Internet and review doctor Web sites, but be aware that over 60 percent of physicians do not use the Internet for medical or patient purposes. Ask friends, family, and any healthcare professionals you know (especially nurses, who are the most informed and responsive). Call and visit the doctor’s office to scope it out, and set an appointment to interview the doctor. Call the state board (of orthopedics, of ophthalmology, etc.) to find out if the doctor you’re considering is board certified (i.e., has met the basic standards in her or his area of specialization). In short, be sure that Web sites are just one of many resources you turn to.

I would also recommend the “How to Find the Best Doctors” state and regional guidebook series (and other helpful healthcare books) published by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd.. Look for “20,125 Questionable Doctors” in print or CD from Public Citizen Health Research Group. For the best non-Internet source on how to choose and deal with a doctor, I recommend you get a copy of my book on the subject. And be sure to check out a great array of helpful titles published by Mary Ann Liebert Inc.

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