Medical tourism reviews: What role should they play in selecting a healthcare provider?

 

Online reviews of international doctors are proliferating and there is fierce competition for top marks from patients as consumers increasingly rely on reviews to make decisions about where to secure healthcare services overseas.

While feedback from patients in the form of testimonials and case studies can offer insights into the services those patients may receive, reviews pose two major problems. First, reviews are unreliable in terms of predicting quality of clinical performance and outcomes. Second, reviews can be misleading, inaccurate, or fake.

Clinical quality or effective marketing?

Consumers’ reliance on reviews is evident by the rise of websites such as Healthgrades that offer to help people “find the right doctor” based on “helpful reviews”.  Research shows that the overwhelming majority of prospective patients searching the Internet for information about international healthcare providers make decisions about which doctors to choose based on positive or negative reviews. How trustworthy are patient reviews when it comes to clinical outcomes?

According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Infomatics Association , consumer ratings have no association with clinical performance.  The article states in part,

Our results support what has been a longstanding belief among health care stakeholders that consumer rating scores are not reflective of the basic quality and value of care provided by an individual physician which are unquestionably among the most important criteria to consider when selecting a health care provider. This information has direct implications for the ~80% of health care consumers who are currently selecting physicians based on ratings alone.

It seems logical to assume that consumers mistakenly believe that good ratings equal high quality international health care and good clinical outcomes.

True or false?

Add to this disconnect between positive ratings and excellent clinical outcomes that disturbing trend of misleading and false testimonials and ratings. Lawsuits have been filed because of false reviews posted on a provider’s website or social media sites by competitors. Providers themselves post reviews that are unverified, modified to be misleading, or edited to be “improved”. Negative reviews are not posted.

Consumer protection agencies around the world such as The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) are working together to find and prosecute abusers who post fake or misleading reviews.  Programs to educate consumers about such practices are proliferating but there is a long way to go to before this pernicious practice is reduced.

What can providers do to offer genuine reviews and accurate information about clinical performance? Health care providers themselves can provide clear and truthful information about clinical outcomes. Consumers can start to ask about clinical performance and demand answers that are given in lay person language instead of medicalese.  Facilitators and other parties engaged in securing reviews and testimonials from patients can pledge to verify reviews as well as disclose the entire review without selective editing. Negative reviews should be posted.

It is clear that consumer reviews are here to stay. They are powerful tools that can be used effectively and ethically or used and abused. Creating guidelines for the use of testimonials and disclosing those guidelines builds credibility while adding value to the selection process. Educating our current and prospective clients about evaluating health care services beyond patient reviews can help people make better choices about securing the best medical care available in any country.

Until then, buyer beware!

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