Doctor on Call: Your Guide to Online Healthcare
Finding the Right Doctor Online
Rule number one: Beware of biased sources. Many insurance companies won't list doctors who are out of their networks; online phone directories are often paid for by ads from the physicians they feature. Your better bet? "Start by going to the site for your state's licensing board, where you will see a listing of every person who has a legal right to practice medicine there," says David Donnersberger, MD, an assistant professor of medical law at Northwestern University, internist, and attorney. "Also, you should check to make sure any doctors you might go to are board-certified, meaning they have passed a battery of tests and meet the minimum requirements that allow them to specialize in a certain area of medicine."
Never having checked out my own doc online, I was curious. I went to medicalboard.georgia.gov and typed in the last name of my physician in Atlanta. The Web site informed me that his license was up-to-date (though I discovered there was another doctor in that city with the same last name who had let his expire). Next, I wanted to verify my MD's board certification. I typed in www.abms.org for the American Board of Medical Specialties and registered by entering my e-mail and creating a password (there's no charge). Then I typed in my doctor's name and city and happily confirmed that he's a certified generalist in my state -- not that I was surprised, but it was still nice to know I hadn't been seeing some quack for the past five years.
I was interested to find out what more subjective Web sites -- like the ones where patients rate the doctors they've seen -- would say about my physician. But previous experience with the unreliable nature of sites on which other customers recommend hotels or movies they like made me hesitant -- for good reason, as it turns out. "If a Web site wants you to enter detailed demographic data before sharing any information, that's a red flag -- be wary," Dr. Donnersberger says. "Those are typically profit-making sites that will offer you only the doctor's name and address, which you can get for free anyway from the Yellow Pages. Then they'll start suggesting unrelated services [like personal trainers and health spas] in your area, because those companies are paying them."
I started my search with vitals.com, a free site that provides information and credentials for more than 700,000 active U.S. doctors and also allows you to search by symptom so you can locate experts who specialize in your condition. I found my physician's name, next to which it said he was board-certified (knew that!) and that he'd gone to a top-notch medical school. His photo popped up, as well as his address, phone number, and hospital affiliation, but no patient had rated him yet. So I did, filling out a survey that scored him from poor to excellent on a number of factors, including bedside manner, waiting-room time, ease of getting an appointment, and his follow-up after the visit. Now his patient rating is four stars (the best), thanks to me.
But what I really wanted to know was what other people thought, so I tried a different site: healthgrades.com. For $12.95, the site offers patient reviews, a background check, and the scoop on any malpractice suits. But I was looking for something that was free, so I declined.
Another site, ratemds.com, came up high on the search engine I used, so I checked it out. Ratemds.com boasts a database of more than 150,000 doctors, largely assembled from reader reviews. Pay dirt! My doctor had been rated by his patients. His score? An emoticon smiley face -- code for punctual, helpful, and knowledgeable.
I happened to agree with this rating, but given the nature of consumer-driven Web sites, it's best to use the information for general guidance (although anyone with consistently poor ratings should probably be avoided) and save the final judgment for your own experience. "A lot of patients who actually take the time to write reviews are going to be disgruntled," Dr. Donnersberger points out. "As in any business, you rarely hear from the happy consumers."
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