San Diego

Why You Should Dig Deeper Than Online Reviews When Finding A New Doctor

A quick online search can help you find a good restaurant, an experienced plumber, or a bargain vacation. But an analysis by a University of San Diego Law School professor and a law graduate says the same can’t be said for doctors.

Online ratings and reviews for those in the medical profession often lack crucial information about doctors’ professional background, their state licenses, and formal accusations and disciplinary actions against them by the Medical Board of California.

Kayla Watson, a recent USD law school grad, found that 77 percent of patients check online reviews first when searching for a new doctor. Watson’s review of the most popular sites -- including Google Reviews, Yelp, Web M.D., and Vitals -- revealed most potential patients focus on the “customer experience” offered by the doctor’s office.

“Did the patient wait a long time in the waiting room?” Watson said. “Did they have a good experience with the staff and the front desk?”

“But there’s not a lot of information about the actual healthcare that is provided in that office,” Watson added. Watson and Professor Bridget Gramme, who runs USD Law School’s Center for Public Interest Law, also found a lack of objective information about the physicians’ background and any past disciplinary action.

NBC 7 Investigates reviewed the ratings, reviews and information available on more than a dozen local physicians on social media sites and compared it with licensing and physician profile information available on the Medical Board of California’s (MBC) website.

Information available on the MBC website but frequently missing from the social media site includes: license expiration dates, misdemeanor and felony convictions, hospital discipline, and the full text of disciplinary actions taken by the MBC.

“You see a (social media) review with five stars, and you compare it to a physician’s actual disciplinary history, which (might) show he’s been on probation multiple times,” Professor Gramme said. “That (can be) really misleading to the public.”

Gramme and Watson found numerous examples of local physicians who have been placed on probation by the Medical Board but whose public record of discipline is not included on the most popular social media sites.

Records obtained from the Medical Board by NBC 7 Investigates also reveal that 43 San Diego-area doctors are currently on probation for malpractice, unprofessional conduct, over-prescribing controlled substances, and other violations. Twenty-seven other doctors are the subject of an accusation of wrong-doing issued against them by the Board.

One example is North County surgeon Payam Moazzaz, who has a five-star rating on Google, top marks on Vitals and Web M.D., and a string of glowing reviews on those websites.

But those sites include no information about Moazzaz’s disciplinary history with the Medical Board, specifically a November, 2018 finding by a state administrative law judge of gross negligence, failure to maintain adequate and accurate records, and unprofessional conduct related to his post-surgical care of an elderly patient who developed a serious infection.

The Medical Board confirmed Judge Abraham Levy’s proposed decision in December, 2018, and placed Moassaz on three-years probation with numerous terms and conditions, including completion of education and medical record keeping courses.

(Moassaz and his attorney did not respond to numerous requests for comment about that discipline, but detailed information about the evidence in that case and the arguments for and against probation, as well as the underlying accusation, are available here.)

The Medical Board also offers a free app that alerts you if the Board files an accusation of wrongdoing against any doctor on your list.

"The information's out there, so the important part is getting it into people's hands so they can make informed decisions," said the recent law school graduate Watson.

Professor Gramme wants to make that information easier to find, perhaps with a new law that would require doctors to include a link to the Medical Board’s license search page in an advertising they pay for.

But Gramme predicts strong opposition from physicians and the advertising industry could block that proposal.

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