Sites like Yelp, Amazon, Epinions, and Angie’s List share a common goal: They allow members of the online community to rate and review products or businesses so others can make informed decisions about where they eat, what they read, and who should fix their car. But when it comes to health, the decisions we make based on what we read online have the highest stakes. When it comes to online physician rating sites like Healthgrades, do the same standards apply?

Researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed a group of Americans about their awareneess and active use of online rating sites when choosing doctors. Study author, David Hanauer, and his team aimed to answer the question: What should we make of websites like RateMDs and Vitals? Who uses these websites and why?

Hanauer and colleagues surveyed 3563 people, out of which 2136 — or 60 percent — responded. Their ages ranged from 18 to over 60. The results, published in JAMA, showed 65 percent of these respondents were aware of such sites existing, but only about one-fourth of that group admitted they actually used the websites.

The 43 percent who did not turn to online ratings said they didn’t trust the information listed on the sites. And while 59 percent said online ratings were important, they also said they would rather rely on word of mouth from family and friends.

Nevertheless, the researchers believe that doctor review sites will continue to grow in the United States, especially with social media and the Internet becoming an increasingly efficient source to turn to for information. The major review sites give a wealth of information about a particular doctor’s education, email availability, spoken languages, specialties, board certifications, the procedures they perform, whether or not they accept new patients and more — and it’s all material that a patient can access at the click of a button rather than calling across several clinics to collect. In the case of RateMD, updates of the latest doctor reviews appear in real time on the home page.

“She is often late for appointments but she is totally worth the wait,” writes one RateMD user about a gynecologist in Illinois. “She gives the information you need in an honest manner. She doesn't sugar coat things but she doesn't make them sound worse than they are. It was very comforting for a first time mom!”

The sites have search options and browse options, forums, and “Top Local Doctors” lists. On Healthgrades, users can access a Background Check section, which lists the number of — if any — malpractice claims, sanctions, and board actions.

“Rating sites for physicians are likely here to stay, so it is probably in everyone's best interest (patients and physicians) to ensure that they are as accurate, trustworthy, and representative as possible.” David Hanauer wrote in an email to Medical Daily.

For Hanauer, that means patients must be extra critical when using the websites. He cites several dangers that people should take into account when surfing through reviews, the most basic of which is that not all relevant information will be posted online. “The public is using online rating sites to make decisions about choosing a physician, despite continuing concerns about their validity,” says Hanauer. “We know from prior work, and even our own study that few patients ever leave comments. In our study only 5% of the public had ever left a physician rating on a site. So even if a site has physician ratings, they might not truly represent the views of most patients that have seen a physician.”

Another danger is that no higher authority — such as the FDA when it comes to inspecting food and drugs — regulates the sites. “It is up to each person to decide if a site has trustworthy information, or if the site is measuring aspects of a physician that are "important,” Hanauer said.

In the study, the researchers concluded that physician review sites will no doubt be as useful to the public as reviews for movies or car mechanics, but “the implications should be considered because the stakes are higher.”

Source: Hanauer D, Zheng K, Singer D, Gebremariam A, Davis M. Public Awareness, Perception, and Use of Online Physician Ratings. JAMA. 2014.