Online Ranking Sites Still Lacking

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, June 4, 2008

In the past I've said that I don't think consumer ratings sites will have a big impact on how consumers choose their healthcare providers. Sites that are driven by customer reviews, especially anonymous ones, are unreliable. Government or payer reporting and ranking sites just aren't that user-friendly. People want recommendations from people they know, not from some faceless government statistician and not from someone who may or may not be who they say they are, even if they do have a cute puppy face for an avatar.

But I might have to reconsider that position now that the Consumer's Union, publisher of the well-known Consumer Reports, has gotten into the business of ranking hospitals. ConsumerReportsHealth is calling itself a "one-stop health Web site."

Consumer Reports is not only a household name, but also a trusted one. They have excellent brand recognition and loyalty. They've been around a long time. And they don't accept advertising dollars. It's a trustworthy brand—some might argue it's more trustworthy than the government.

But I'm not ready to change my mind about the future of ranking sites quite yet.

For starters, the information available on the Consumer Reports site is scant, at best. The hospital ratings deal with only one measure—how aggressively each hospital treats patients. I doubt the average man on the street would be able to tell you whether or not it's better to be treated aggressively. The site cites research saying aggressive treatment does not necessarily mean better outcomes, but, let's face it, that's counterintuitive and many are skeptical.

Aside from this puzzling entree into the increasingly crowded hospital rankings market, the Consumer Reports site also covers treatments for conditions from back pain to bunions. It costs about $24 a year to subscribe to the main site and the health site.

What you get for your money is rudimentary:

  • The site lists "coronary angioplasty" at the top of the rankings of treatments for heart attack, right alongside aspirin. For atrial fibrillation, anticoagulants and other pills dominate the ratings. No word on surgical options.
  • For breast cancer, the benefits of surgery, radiation therapy, and tamoxifen "likely" outweigh the risks, according to the site. There's nothing about new or experimental treatments, let alone complementary and alternative treatments.
  • The section on treatments for long-term back pain weighs the pros and cons of a range of treatments such as acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, and pain medication. Exercise and care management are listed at the top of the list, facet joint injections at the bottom. But surgical treatments do not appear anywhere on the list and get only a brief mention in the overview section.

In other words, they're not there yet.

To be fair, the project is in its early stages and has plans to expand. The organization didn't respond to my request for more information about that, though.

When will consumers really embrace a hospital ranking site? When it's as user-friendly as Web MD, has a name as well-known as Consumer Reports, and has the statistical data of the federal government to power it. Oh, and the reviews would all come from users' moms, co-workers, and next door neighbors.

Gienna Shaw is an editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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