Yelp Reviews: Rating Doctors Is Improving U.S. Health Care

Aggregating social media reviews—the wisdom of crowds—has turned into a powerful new tool for consumers, helping them to find trusted services quickly and efficiently. It’s also allowed new businesses to rapidly reach their intended market and tweak their services based on consumers’ real-time feedback.

Industries like health care, however, remain stubbornly opaque and resistant to dedicated consumer feedback. Yet in a new Manhattan Institute study of New York State hospital ratings on Yelp, which boasts some 140 million unique monthly users, Yelp reviews were correlated with better medical care.

No matter how the federal health care debate turns out, developing more reliable health care guides for consumers has the potential improve care quality, saving lives and eliminating billions of dollars in needless costs.

According to the Health Care Cost Institute, about 43% of all spending by individuals with employer-sponsored insurance in 2011 was shoppable, meaning that it was spent on medical services whose prices could be significantly lowered without compromising quality. New tools like reference pricing—setting a baseline fee that low-cost, high-quality providers might accept—or tiering arrangements—offering lower copays for free-standing MRIs compared to hospital-affiliated services—could potentially help with this.

The question then becomes: How and where can consumers find accessible, reliable information about hospital quality that can guide them when they need care? And how can we help these tools gain traction?

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The government publishes gigabytes of high-quality health care data, but much of it is complex, hard for consumers to understand, and potentially irrelevant to what consumers want to know when they access care. In addition, government surveys of hospital patients are certainly not as widely used as social media platforms.

That’s where technology comes in. Online services like ZocDoc, Healthgrades, and Yelp are democratizing health care information, making it easier for consumers to find and understand information about physicians and hospitals. Yelp has even partnered with ProPublica to publish average wait times, readmission rates, and quality of communication scores for more than 25,000 hospitals, nursing homes, and dialysis clinics.

Yelp provided us with an opportunity to test whether social media reviews correlate with objective health care measures. We examined whether trusted Yelp reviews (screened to weed out fraudulent reviews) correlated with health care quality metrics for New York hospitals, including preventable hospital readmissions and mortality after hospital treatment for certain conditions (such as heart attacks) or procedures (such as stomach surgeries). “Preventable” means that the hospital, through better coordination with the patient or the patient’s other doctors, could’ve prevented a potentially dangerous and expensive complication that sent the patient back into medical care….

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