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elp user reviews of hospitals may in some ways be more helpful to consumers than the official nationwide hospital survey, a new study finds.

Why it matters:

Many people rely on health-related online reviews, but little is known about how reliable they are.

The nitty gritty:

Researchers compared 17,000 Yelp reviews of 1,352 US hospitals to reviews of those hospitals generated by the federal government’s Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey given to patients after hospital admissions. The study found that hospitals with at least 3 Yelp reviews had Yelp ratings nearly identical to the more formal HCAHPS hospital rating.

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At a more detailed level, though, Yelp performed better. When researchers grouped reviews by content, they found that Yelp reviews touched on topics — including comfort, billing experience, and cost of the visit — that were strongly correlated with the overall Yelp rating but didn’t factor into the 32-question HCAHPS survey, suggesting that HCAHPS may be missing key factors that influence hospital experiences. The research was published in Health Affairs.

You’ll want to know:

HCAHPS surveys are only given to people admitted to the hospital. On Yelp, researchers found reviews from caregivers and family members who spend time in the hospital with patients, too. “That’s a really important population that we don’t otherwise hear from,” said the study’s author Dr. Raina M. Merchant, director of the University of Pennsylvania Social Media and Health Innovation Lab. Yelp reviews also provided feedback on multiple levels, from the parking attendant to the hospital administrator, said Merchant.

And people didn’t only write reviews when they were disgruntled. “We found that the reviews were pretty bimodal with an equal distribution of patients who had negative things to say and positive things to say,” said Merchant.

What they’re saying:

While some people may dismiss the value of Yelp in a health care setting, “this study comes along and validates it,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, professor of health policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “Yelp has something useful to offer in terms of assessing hospital quality.”

The bottom line:

When you’re looking to book a hospital visit, Yelp will generally give you pretty good guidance.

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