A Winnipeg podiatrist is warning the public that physicians can pay to manage information on RateMDs, a website that allows patients to review and rate physicians anonymously.
Last month a sales consultant approached Dr. Martin Colledge from the Foot and Ankle Clinic about RateMDs' promoted plans.
Colledge was offered three different plans — free, promoted for $179 US per month and promoted plus for $359 US per month. Each plan came with its own features, such as hiding up to three ratings deemed to be suspicious, removing competitors' banners from a physician's profile and getting a physician's banner on other profiles, Colledge said.
"This company gathers and then controls the information, and the way they make money for it is by charging people the privilege of then manipulating that information, presumably to their advantage, because it's a marketing ploy," said Colledge.
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All three plans come with a verified check mark on a physician's profile to gain patient trust and badges on a physician's profile that say things like "outstanding staff," "world class punctuality," "exceptionally helpful" and "highly knowledgeable." All three plans allow physicians to respond to the anonymous comments, as long as they sign up on the website.
"In private health care … a lot of health-care providers are also businesses. We can't disregard that," Colledge said.
"What is important is that when people are looking for information, that they understand what its essence is."
'It's totally unethical'
Paul Taylor, the patient navigation advisor at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and former health editor at the Globe and Mail, avoids doctor rating websites that allow anonymous reviews, saying such reviews are untrustworthy.
"It's totally unethical," Taylor said of physicians having the ability to pay to manage ratings on RateMDs.
"It's fundamentally dishonest and unethical to have the ability of doctors to remove bad information from them or information that might look negatively upon them and the public doesn't know that," he said.
"You'd hope if that's the way the website is operating, that the website would state that up front."
Reviews not representative
Both Colledge and Taylor warn that reviews on websites like RateMDs don't provide a representative sample of the opinions of patients.
"You're either going to get people who feel very strongly, either one way or another, and because they're anonymous, anyone can say anything on the site," said Taylor.
"The doctor may do a great job looking after seniors, but their patient population doesn't go online to comment," he said.
Colledge has about 24 reviews on RateMDs and he has seen about 15,000 patients, he said.
People who want to comment and rate on RateMDs have to sign up with an email address and password. Users have to agree to the website's conditions that people will "only post truthful, non-libelous and relevant ratings and posts," that people won't "post multiple ratings for a single doctor," and that "RateMDs Inc. does not ascertain the validity of user-submitted ratings or other posts."
"It does lend itself to people who feel grieved and they want to vent, and how else are you going to do that?" said Colledge.
The Canadian Medical Protective Association (CMPA) offers tips to physicians who want to manage their online reputation.
"The CMPA encourages physicians to monitor their online reviews," said Tracy Murphy, senior policy analyst with the CMPA.
The CMPA says online physician reviews are usually positive and it's a sign patients are satisfied with patient care.
Shopping around for doctors
RateMDs is also available in the U.S., where Taylor said the website might be used differently than it is in Canada.
"Canadians don't have as much choice as Americans have traditionally had in the health-care system," said Taylor.
In Manitoba, patients must get a referral from their family doctor or primary care provider in order to see a specialist.
actually have the ability to pick the doctor and who they should be going to."
Canadians look for timely service more than different characteristics in doctors, he said.
"If you need a hip replacement, you really want to have it done sooner rather than later," he said.
Taylor recommends seeing physicians who frequently do the procedure you need performed.
"If their whole job is replacing hips or replacing knees, that's the guy you want to go to," he said.
The Canadian Institute for Health Information also provides data on Canadian hospitals and patient-reported outcomes.
A spokesperson from Vertical Scope, the company that manages RateMDs.com, called Colledge's concerns "unfounded" and said he would send a statement. CBC is still waiting to receive the statement.