An enduring seduction of the Internet is its ongoing invitation for you to rate—and learn what others think of—restaurants, hairstylists, car dealerships, your kids' school, DVD players, movies, college professors. Doctors are no exception: The Web is awash with sites eager to give you the inside dope on your physician. With a single click, you can find out how your internist or surgeon rates against colleagues in his field, what the patients are saying behind his back, if the office staff is chipper, whether malpractice lawyers have him in their sights. This seems the perfect way to resolve an age-old fear far more important than whether that HDTV cuts the mustard: Does my doctor actually suck?
Recently, I embarked on a mission to further the public good (and to determine whether my patients hate me) by visiting these rate-a-doc sites. One by one, I examined the examiners, spending hours—many, many hours, because the Web sites in question seem to run at dial-up-modem speed—checking out a carefully selected roster of a dozen doctors against the data available on the Internet sites, including checkMD.com, HealthGrades.com, RateMDs.com, Suggestadoctor.com, DrScore.com, UCompareHealthCare.com, RatePoint.com, Wellness.com, and Vitals.com. My sample of doctors—internists and surgeons, generalists and specialists—included me, my brother, friends, rivals, heroes, and, in the interest of nonpartisanship, a few docs near the Ohio home of Joe the Plumber.
Here's what I found: zilch. The online doctor rating system has a shocking lack of useful information.
But don't take my word for it—join me on my tour. Let's start with the free sites (most of the rate-a-doc operations don't charge anything). To pay their bills, the freebie (and nonfreebie) sites are studded with ads—for cheap generic Viagra, fantasy football leagues, various walk-in clinics, weight-loss plans. Broadly speaking, all sites offered up two kinds of information. First is regulatory: licensure and any history of disciplinary action. These data are also easily obtained from state department of health Web sites—for New York, that's here and here. Everyone I looked into was licensed, none were running from the law, and—bonus feature—the sites provide e-maps to show you how to find the office.
The other info on the Web sites, and the real guts of the operation, is the promise that previous patients have spilled the beans about their doctors. This sounded exciting, but alas, few beans have been spilled—one site notes (without apology) that they have 137,832 listed doctors and 5,709 patient reviews. Only a few members of my sample had received any feedback at all—generally one or two mild complaints about outdated magazines in the waiting room or the temperature of the exam table. One site did have tons of comments—but none were directed at my panel of doctors. Rather, these commenters were laying into loads of obstetricians, plastic surgeons, and dermatologists, claiming they had done some real dirt. Reading the comments, though, wasn't that much fun—it came closer to listening in on unhinged talk radio.
The free sites were so lame that I figured the real juice was hidden behind a pay-as-you-go firewall. So I decided to blow some Slate bucks—$100 in all—starting with HealthGrades.com While some other pay sites have a la carte fee menus that were difficult to navigate, HealthGrades charges $12.95 per doctor inquiry. I looked myself up first. Surprise: I have a license and am certified to practice in my specialty. I have no disciplinary actions directed my way. And—disappointingly—no patient had written anything about me. As I moved from screen to screen, I found a curious offer. HealthGrades said that if I were Dr. Sepkowitz (of course they know doctors would be rummaging around their own sites), I could learn how, for no additional fee, to tell the 8,143,197 residents of New York City more about myself and my practice, including my philosophy of care (hold still, Plato, additional spinning is futile) as well as my history of publications and media coverage.