Web sites let patients find like-minded physicians
■ Some patients say a certain race, religion or view about sexual orientation is important in a physician. Cyberspace is offering a link between the two.
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After New York dermatologist Dina Strachan, MD, launched a Web site for her practice, she received e-mails from patients as far away as Australia looking for black physicians. She searched the Internet for a site that listed black doctors and said she couldn't find a good one for patients. So she began one on her own: findablackdoctor.com.
"The purpose of this Web site is to give an option to people who think [race] is important. It's the same way some women feel more comfortable with a female gynecologist," Dr. Strachan said.
Since she started the site in April 2005, Dr. Strachan has signed up 150 practitioners, including physicians, dentists and psychologists.
Findablackdoctor.com is among a growing number of Web sites catering to patients looking for physicians of a particular race, religious background or sexual sensitivity. A patient interested in a Christian doctor can search the Christian Medical & Dental Assns.' Web site. Someone who wants a doctor sensitive to the medical needs of gays and lesbians can seek physicians through the Gay and Lesbian Medical Assn.
For physicians, the sites offer an opportunity to expand their patient base, help fight racial and ethnic disparities and form bonds with patients of similar backgrounds, Web operators and physicians said.
"People want a physician who shares their world view, especially if they're dealing with end-of-life issues. Some of these ethical issues are spilling over in how to choose a doctor," said David Stevens, MD, executive director of the 17,000-member Christian Medical & Dental Assns.
It's a matter of personal preference, said Reginald Ware, CEO of blackdoctor.org, which started physician listings in January and has 1,000 physicians and dentists in its database.
"We don't advocate that you should definitely see a black doctor. What we say is if you have a preference, here is a service for you," he said.
An array of options
Many physician organizations offer doctor-finder searches through the Internet. The American Medical Association provides searches through its DoctorFinder tool (link). Patients can search for a doctor by geographic location and specialty, but the profiles do not specify a physician's race or religion.
On sites that cater to racial, religious and sexual orientation preference, patients search for free, and physicians post basic information for free, including name, address and specialty. Doctors may pay a fee for more complete listings on some finders. For example, findablackdoctor.com offers physicians $40 or $150 one-year memberships that feature expanded listings.
Web operators put disclaimers on listings, saying they have not thoroughly checked the credentials of doctors. Blackdoctor.org, for example, does a basic check to see if a doctor is indeed a doctor. But the Web site is clear that inclusion in listings is not a recommendation or endorsement, and that the directory is not meant as a tool to verify a doctor's qualifications. Findablackdoctor.com takes a similar approach.
"This is more like a phone book. It's 'buyer beware.' You have to look at someone's credentials yourself," Dr. Strachan said.
Doctors say posting their names on the Web sites has led to new patients. Eva Pickler, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Johnson City, Tenn., has added patients through the CMDA doctor finder. She understands some patients might be more comfortable seeing a physician who does not perform abortions and agrees with them on other reproductive topics.
"It's easy to talk about their issues in the context of faith," Dr. Pickler said. "I also enjoy, as a Christian physician, connecting with Christian patients, and this is one of the ways I can do that."
Psychiatrist Karl Benzio, MD, of Doylestown, Pa., is in the CMDA database and has received a few patient referrals. But he doubts such sites drum up a lot of business for doctors.
"Very few people from their neighborhood are going to access it," he said.
Deciding whether a site is right for you
Research indicates that patients desire to have a doctor of the same race.
In a Dec. 2, 2003, Annals of Internal Medicine report, Johns Hopkins researchers found that patients with same-race doctors were more satisfied with the visit, said their doctors were more participatory and were more likely to recommend the doctor to a friend. A 2003 University of Cincinnati study showed that black patients who experienced unfair treatment from a doctor or nurse, or whose family did, were more likely to prefer going to black health care professionals.
Physicians say black doctors might better understand cultural and medical issues of black patients. And Web sites that list black physicians are a way to bring them together.
"This is sort of a grassroots community effort to help eliminate health care disparities," said Lynne Perry-Bottinger, MD, an interventional cardiologist in New Rochelle, N.Y., listed on findablackdoctor.com.
But she said some black doctors are against being listed on specialized sites.
"A lot of black doctors don't want to have the label, 'black doctor,' that maybe it cheapens their credentials or it makes them seem racially or culturally insensitive," Dr. Perry-Bottinger said.
St. Louis pediatrician Ken Haller, MD, said doctors should examine if being included on an affinity group's Web site will be more beneficial than detrimental.
Before they seek inclusion in the doctor finder of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Assn., physicians should ask themselves if being listed would cost them more patients than they gain, said Dr. Haller, a GLMA board member. For example, some patients might not go to a doctor who says he or she is gay.
Dr. Haller estimates about one-fourth of the 1,000 GLMA members have received referrals through the group's online database, which gets 3,000 hits each month. The Web site fills a need for patients seeking doctors who might be more sensitive to discussing and treating sexually transmitted diseases.
"Having a place where people can go and get [doctors] who are more well-versed in particular communities is very important," said Dr. Haller, assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. "It can help you to be seen as someone who has a particular interest in a particular patient population, and that can be a very good thing."