The Second Opinion

What ProPublica gets from Yelp in a new partnership

August 6, 2015

A marriage made in heaven? An unlikely pairing? A damn smart business decision? Perhaps all three apply to the partnership announced yesterday between Yelp, best known as a restaurant review site, and non-profit news outlet ProPublica to provide consumers with information to facilitate their healthcare shopping experience. Yelp brings the wisdom of the crowd; ProPublica brings the medical data—both from its own reporting and pulled from government websites where it is often hard to find (or search or read). As Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman put it in a blog post yesterday: “We’ve joined forces with ProPublica to incorporate healthcare statistics and consumer opinion survey data onto the Yelp business pages of more than 25,000 medical treatment facilities.”

Now, if you search Yelp for, say, Beachside Nursing Center in Huntington Beach, CA, along with “Ben C.’s” four-out-of-five-star review of the center you can see—courtesy of ProPublica—that the facility has 59 beds and “no fines paid,” “no serious deficiencies,” and “no payment suspensions” (all of which are further explained in hover text). “We are getting millions more people seeing those data who are in the act of finding [a healthcare service],” Scott Klein, ProPublica’s assistant managing editor, told me.

The partnership seems to be a win-win for both parties without any money changing hands. A few months ago, Yelp approached ProPublica about getting more government health information onto its website, Klein told me. “Healthcare is a big chunk of Yelp’s traffic,” he said. For ProPublica, Klein said, “The biggest opportunity is not the number of stars users give but the actual narrative reviews. Things people say are rich veins for research, insight and source generation.” ProPublica will have “bulk access,” Klein said, to the same user and review information that appears publicly on Yelp’s site. “We get it as one enormous file we can analyze,” he said, which gives them the ability to do statistical analysis and to find sources—for example, people who are taking a certain drug. That information can guide them to possible stories or inform stories in progress. It’s a reporting tool most journalists can only dream about.

I asked Klein about the currency of some of the information, since some of Yelp’s restaurant reviews are old and a diner may be misled by a favorable review of a place that has gone down hill. Healthcare reviews, he replied, “shouldn’t be quite as perishable.” Klein hopes one of the next projects will involve ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database, which identifies payments drug makers have made to physicians. First, he says, there are some data matching issues to sort out.

Of course, just because it’s easier to access information doesn’t mean it’s all of equal value—or that it tells the whole story. Just because a database says a nursing home has no deficiencies does not guarantee it’s a good nursing home given the sorry state of inspections these days. Telling someone patient survival at a dialysis center is “above standard”—even with the hover text explanation– is not 100% illuminating. It’s best for consumers and reporters to use this data-enhanced Yelp as the starting point for research rather than the end point. It’s one thing to go to a favorably-reviewed restaurant and get a bad meal. It’s another to go to a favorably-reviewed healthcare provider and have a bad outcome.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.