Doctor ratings are less popular than those of toasters, cars and movies when it comes to online consumer sites.
That's according to a survey that found most adults hadn't checked online physician reviews -- and most said a conveniently located office and accepting patients' health insurance was more important.
Still, the sites do appear to be swaying opinions. About a third of patients who viewed online sites sought out or avoided physicians based on their ratings.
The findings come from a nationally representative Internet-based survey of 2,137 adults. Results were published online Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The 2012 survey may overestimate awareness among the general population, since about 1 in 5 Americans don't have Internet access. But the researchers attempted to compensate for that by providing free Internet-connected computers for consumers without access.
The results suggest that online doctor ratings have gained popularity since earlier surveys. That's a concern since there's no way to know if a review is real or fake, or what might have motivated the reviewer, said lead author Dr. David Hanauer, a pediatrician and associate professor at the University of Michigan.
More than one-third of those surveyed had checked out online reviews for movies, restaurants, appliances or electronics, and more than 1 in 4 viewed online car ratings. But less than 1 in 5 said they had viewed online physician ratings.
Consumer reviews of doctors' can be found on dozens of online sites, including some that only rate doctors and others like yelp.com that cover a panoply of goods and services. Most reviewers don't include their full names or remain anonymous.
Some doctors who oppose the idea make their patients sign "gag orders" agreeing not to post comments about them online. Hanauer said he doesn't do that. He added that he hasn't found any reviews of himself online.
The American Medical Association -- the nation's largest physicians' group -- is wary of the sites.
"Anonymous online opinions of physicians should be taken with a grain of salt, and should certainly not be a patient's sole source of information when looking for a new physician," Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven, AMA's president, said in a statement.
Hanauer questioned whether doctors should be subject to "crowdsourced" reviews like other commodities. He said doctors risk getting bad reviews for sound medical advice simply because patients don't agree with it. For example, antibiotics only fight bacteria but parents often want pediatricians to prescribe them for kids' colds or other viruses. Doctors' refusals might result in a bad review, but that would be misleading, he said.
Roberta Clarke, a Boston University health care marketing specialist, said there's no reason that doctors shouldn't be the focus of consumer reviews, but that online sites need to do a better job of providing meaningful information.
There are no standards, some sites charge a fee to look at doctor reviews, and sites that use stars or checkmarks don't always explain what's being rated, Clarke said.
Oliver Kharraz, founder of ZocDoc.com said his New York-based site avoids the pitfalls of many by offering more than just reviews. Patients can schedule appointments on the site with doctors who pay to be listed, and only patients who make appointments are allowed to give reviews. Patients also get suggested topics for review including bedside manner and waiting times.
"The review needs to be done right in order for it to make sense," he said.
Lori Goldstein, a beauty salon owner in Chicago's suburbs, said she has used online ratings sites to help find doctors for her mother and herself, and has written bad online reviews for her fathers' doctors because she thinks they give him too many prescriptions.
"I wanted to warn people," she said.
But Goldstein said consumers have to be smart about using online doctor reviews.
"You have to be careful because you can't believe everything," she said.