Usefulness of online information

New Delhi, Jan 08: The National Medical Commission (NMC) indeed deserves praise for its recently announced guidelines, currently on hold, aiming to ensure high professional conduct and ethical standards within the medical fraternity. These guidelines represent a critical step towards enhancing the healthcare landscape in India. Nevertheless, there are notable concerns regarding the proposed restrictions on medical professionals and institutions when it comes to participating in online review and rating platforms.

In a nation as vast and diverse as India, where equitable access to medical facilities remains an ongoing challenge, online information related to medical professionals and institutions has proven invaluable for patients who are often forced to make decisions in a hurry, particularly when they face urgent healthcare needs. The convenience of online profiles, ratings, and reviews empowers patients to make well-informed decisions. It allows them to identify specialised doctors in their vicinity and receive timely and accurate treatment. Undoubtedly, online ratings and reviews have the potential to revolutionise the way patients and their families approach critical healthcare decisions.

Understanding the criticality of online ratings and curing patients’ anxiety

Ailments bring both physical and mental pain, leaving patients uncertain about the next steps primarily due to a lack of information. Online reviews provide relief to patients and their families by allowing access to others’ experiences with specific doctors and hospitals.

Today, patients can access information about the experiences of other patients who have received care from a specific doctor or visited a particular hospital. They can read about the experiences of patients with similar medical conditions and make the right decision. This information is particularly valuable for individuals facing complex or serious medical issues and needing immediate care. Earlier, patients used to rely on word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family that were based on personal experiences. Nowadays, such recommendations are also based on online searches.

Moreover, it allows patients to gauge the level of care provided by doctors and hospitals. Positive reviews often highlight the competence, compassion, and communication skills of healthcare providers, while negative reviews may signal areas where improvements are needed. This information guides patients towards healthcare providers who consistently deliver high-quality care.

Most critically, hospitals and doctors who receive feedback through online ratings and reviews have an opportunity to identify areas for improvement. Constructive criticism helps healthcare facilities and providers make necessary changes to enhance the patient experience and the quality of care they deliver. Consequently, patients benefit from a continuous cycle of improvement within the healthcare industry.

Response to daunting challenges

Unquestionably, NMC did not make this decision in a hurry. It’s to combat threats posed by the digital world. It’s a fact that, despite their benefits, online ratings and reviews also present some potential disadvantages for patients as well as medical professionals.

One significant drawback is the possibility of encountering biased or misleading information. Personal biases, grudges, or conflicts of interest may influence reviews, leading to inaccurate portrayals of healthcare providers or facilities. Furthermore, not all patients leave reviews, and those who do may not represent the full spectrum of experiences. This can result in an incomplete or skewed view of a doctor’s or hospital’s performance. Additionally, overreliance on online reviews can sometimes lead to self-diagnosis and self-treatment, which can be risky and counterproductive. Most importantly, NMC also attempted to protect patients’ privacy.

Similarly, it affects medical professionals and institutions as well. For instance, negative or unfair reviews can damage a healthcare provider’s reputation, even if they are unfounded or exaggerated. Most critically, the anonymity of online reviews sometimes leads to a lack of accountability, as reviewers may not always provide accurate or constructive feedback, making it challenging for healthcare professionals to address concerns or respond to criticism effectively.

Possible courses of action

In any case, imposing restrictions is not the optimal solution, as it not only stifles the potential benefits but can also create an atmosphere of distrust. Instead of strict limitations, the focus should be on developing clear, transparent guidelines that outline how healthcare professionals can effectively engage with patients online while upholding ethical standards.

These guidelines should extend to encompass ethical practices and professional codes of conduct specific to online interactions. The paramount concern here should be patient privacy, ensuring that their sensitive health information remains secure. Such guidelines not only protect the rights of patients but also foster a sense of responsibility and professionalism among healthcare providers. They serve as a framework for constructive engagement with patients and online platforms, striking a balance between transparency and safeguarding sensitive information.

Moreover, implementing rigorous moderation and verification processes is essential to guarantee the authenticity of reviews. By verifying the identities of reviewers and closely monitoring the content they post, online platforms can significantly reduce the risk of false or malicious reviews. Collaborative efforts between healthcare organizations, regulatory bodies, and online review platforms are pivotal in this endeavour. They can work together to verify the authenticity of reviews and validate the qualifications of healthcare professionals, thereby enhancing transparency and trust.

Furthermore, these platforms should offer healthcare providers the means to respond to reviews, facilitating open and constructive communication. This process encourages dialogue and dispute resolution when necessary, ensuring that concerns and criticisms are addressed effectively. Such a comprehensive approach not only safeguards the integrity of online ratings and reviews but also enhances the overall healthcare experience for patients and professionals alike. It is an indispensable step towards harnessing the potential benefits while mitigating the drawbacks associated with online healthcare information.

Prevailing global practices

Nations across the globe have recognised the efficacy of having online ratings and reviews of doctors and hospitals and are nurturing this culture. For instance, many countries, including the United States, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia, have a variety of review and rating platforms. In the UK, the National Health Services (NHS) operates a Reviews & Ratings microsite for reviews and ratings.

In the US, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services runs its Five-star quality rating service that provides information on the quality of care. Many other countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and most Nordic countries, systematically report ‘Quality of Care’ as part of overall health system performance reports. These practices can offer insights on how to navigate challenges and benefit from online ratings and reviews.

In this digitally-connected world, the transformative power of online ratings and reviews is unmistakable. These platforms have revolutionised decision-making across various aspects of our lives. It is, therefore, disheartening to contemplate the possibility of the medical community and patients being denied the benefits of this invaluable resource. The government’s vision of “Digital India” emphasises the role of digital platforms in fostering a robust healthcare ecosystem.

The NMC is encouraged to engage in a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders to re-evaluate its guidelines. Rather than imposing stringent restrictions, the development of clear and ethical engagement guidelines for healthcare professionals in the online sphere can serve the interests of all parties involved. These guidelines should encompass critical aspects such as patient privacy and professionalism.

Additionally, the implementation of robust moderation and verification processes can ensure the authenticity of reviews, minimising the risks associated with false or malicious content. Collaborative efforts between healthcare organisations, regulatory bodies, and online review platforms to validate reviews and qualifications can enhance transparency. Furthermore, the provision of channels for healthcare providers to respond to reviews encourages open communication and effective dispute resolution.

As a global practice, countries worldwide have recognised the significance of online ratings and reviews for doctors and hospitals, nurturing a culture that promotes transparency and accountability. By drawing insights from these practices, India can overcome the challenges and maximise the benefits of online ratings and reviews in its healthcare sector. The NMC must re-evaluate its stance to harness the potential of digital mediums in building a robust healthcare ecosystem for the nation.