From restaurants and hotels to landscapers and plumbers, it's rare to buy anything these days without going online first, to see what others think. But when it comes to relying on online medical reviews, the News4 I-Team found you really should get a second opinion.
"I don't know that patients are getting a true idea of the physician or the quality of care that they may have," said Dr. Shahnaz Fatteh, an allergist and immunologist from Florida.
The I-Team heard the same thing from doctor after doctor after doctor whose careers had been touched by fake reviews.
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Dr. Saralyn Mark contacted the I-Team after watching a previous investigation on how to spot fake online reviews.
"When I opened it up, I was completely shocked," Mark said of a review she spotted on Vitals.com.
The reviewer gave her a one-star rating, saying she didn't spend much time with the patient or treat them with respect.
"Really everything that I find abhorrent," said Mark, particularly because she is an academic physician and does not even see patients.
The office address listed in the fake review is her home, and it had been posted online for about two years.
"I sent out a blast email to colleagues who are practicing physicians, and invariably, almost every one of them said they had experienced this," Mark told the I-Team.
And most, like Dr. Wendy Bernstein, who divides her time between Baltimore and Rochester, are too busy with patients to keep tabs on more than a dozen doctor review sites that have popped up.
"I never thought about doing that. So I looked and I realized that I was being trashed online," said Bernstein.
She was particularly upset about a review which cited a long wait in her waiting room — since she doesn't have a waiting room. She usually meets her patients on their way into an operating room.
"To have someone sit there and try to take the ground out from under you, it's hard," said Bernstein. "I was kind of surprised that someone would be so vindictive."
The I-Team asked the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA) how prevalent the problem is, prompting the organization to survey its members to see how many have found fake reviews and how best to treat the problem.
"These reviews are looked at by your medical credentialing departments. They're looked at by insurance providers. They're looked at by your faculty, your colleagues," said Fatteh.
Some of the doctors told the I-Team competing offices or disgruntled former employees might be to blame for writing fake reviews. Others thought the effort could be more sinister.
"They basically want to charge you a lot of money to fix any blemishes that were there," said AMWA President Dr. Roberta Gebhard.
Several doctors told the I-Team they consistently get emails from reputation repair companies offering to clean up their online image for a price — right around the same time as those one-star reviews appear.
"I think it's unethical, sounds like it's probably illegal. It's immoral; it's not the right thing to do," said Gebhard.
Gebhard said she no longer believes in online physician reviews and thinks it's dangerous to allow them, since patients cannot tell if they're legitimate. Some of her colleagues think the industry could do more.
"I think we just need to create a platform that's truthful and secure and that the information that's being gathered is vetted appropriately," suggested Fatteh.
But when a Brookings Institution research study asked patients to choose a doctor based on government ratings versus online reviews, those doctor review sites carried a lot of weight, especially with female patients.
"I think they take them for granted because they think those reviews are already being vetted and they are real," Professor Niam Yaraghi told the I-Team, adding that the government ratings from verified patients often differed from the ones posted online.
Yaraghi said while fake negative reviews hurt doctors, fake positive reviews can hurt patients.
"If you choose an oncologist based on a set of unreliable and sometimes fake reviews, then it's literally a matter of life and death," said Yaraghi.
He said the most likely customers to post reviews are those who were really happy or really angry with a doctor's care, so online reviews rarely offer a complete picture.
Patients should consider searching the doctor's name with the words "lawsuit" or "disciplinary action" before making an appointment. There is also a government website with star ratings for specific medical and specialist procedures, doctors and hospitals from verified patients.
"I think most people go online to look for reviews before they make a decision about doctors," said Daniela Matarazzo, who recently went online to find a new dentist for her twins.
She wanted to find someone other moms recommended.
"They helped me know what to expect in terms of whether or not the dentist was going to have a long wait time, whether or not they had a fun waiting room for my kids to play," said Matarazzo.
Her kids loved the dentist, and it never dawned on her that those reviews she saw could be fake.
"I have heard of it happening with restaurants and places like that, but it is surprising that that would happen in the medical field," said Matarazzo.
Stu MacFarlane is the chief marketing officer for Internet Brands, which owns WebMD and Vitals.com. He said more than 10 million people now visit those websites every month, and they are constantly trying to weed out questionable reviews.
"Once there is that feeling of lack of authenticity, it's a problem," said MacFarlane.
Those sites use special filters to identify biased reviewers, keywords often used in fake reviews and dozens of other warning signs.
"If any of these things show that the review is likely to be false, we'll take it down," said MacFarlane.
Vitals.com did eventually remove that fake review about Mark after she contacted them. But she hopes her online experience will persuade patients who rely on reviews to instead reach out to friends and family or another medical professional.
"This isn't just about going to see a physician," said Mark. "It's putting your life in someone's hands."
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.