A group of researchers examined how Google ranks top spine surgeons and published their findings in Spine.
The study authors searched for the top 25 spine surgeon websites by search rankings for the largest 25 cities in the U.S. They analyzed the websites for information including degrees, experience and characteristics of the practice as well as online ratings and social media followers.
There were 625 surgeon websites examined in the study. Researchers found:
1. The categorical variables that correlated with higher average Google search terms were orthopedics instead of neurosurgery as the specialty; board certification; and top 40 residency program graduation.
2. There was not a significant difference in the physicians with an MD versus DO credential.
3. The number of years in practice, publications or H-index did not correlate with online search rankings.
4. Social media followers and online rankings on sites like Healthgrades did not correlate with ranking in among top results of Google searches.
5. The study authors concluded: "Google search rankings do not always align with patient preferences, currently promoting orthopedic over neurosurgical specialists, graduating from top residency programs and board certification, while largely ignoring academic pedigree, research, social media presence, and online ratings."
In a viewpoint published by Spine, William Weeks, MD, Nitesh Jain, and James Weinstein, DO, wrote, "We anticipate that future consumers of elective surgeries (like most spine surgeries) will seek information more indicative of quality than those that [this article] studied, such as surgical volumes, surgical appropriateness, and process and outcomes measures."
To ensure patients have that information, the authors said customer-friendly tools, longitudinal billing data and patient remoted outcomes will need to be aggregated to help patients decide on the best place to seek spine care. The authors warn that search engines that don't take these factors into consideration "will usher medicine into an era of chicanery, where advertising, social media presence and misleading or contrived evaluations will influence care decisions to the detriment of those who believe them."