MARCH 15, 2007


The Interview

What, me worry?: RateMDs founder

Silicon Valley geek John Swapceinski's website RateMDs now contains ratings on 24,000 Canadian physicians, up from only 800 a few months ago. Despite censure from the CMA and a spate of threatened lawsuits Mr Swapceinski has no plans to take the site down any time soon. NRM talked to Mr Swapceinski from his office in Sunnyvale, CA on February 21.

Photos © Don Feria

What's the worst thing you've been called by an irate ratee? I've been called every name in the book: greedy, money-hungry, a-hole. Just about everything you can think of, I've been called.

Some people have accused you of starting a "witch hunt" against doctors. Are you a crusader or just a savvy businessman? Um, would I call myself a crusader? Well, I guess I am passionate about providing the website for patients to be able to share their experiences, so I guess that makes me a little bit of a crusader.

Have you seen a doctor since you started the website in 2003? Yeah, I got my nose broken playing basketball and the doctor did a really good job. In fact, I think I rated her on the site, a positive rating. But the website didn't come up in our conversation.

You'd better hope you don't get sick... Yes, I hope that for sure, and not just because of that website. It has crossed my mind.

RateMDs now gets more new ratings in Canada than in the US. Do Canadian patients have more to complain about? I don't think that's the reason why we're getting more visits — it's because we've gotten more press there. On the other hand, because of the socialized medical system, I do believe they have more to complain about. Canada has all the complaints that US patients have, but also complaints about not getting appointments with doctors. You don't see that in the US very much.

You live in California now. What do you like better about Governor Schwarzenegger, his politics or his movies? Tough question. I like 'em both.

How about his recent proposal to introduce a universal healthcare system in California? It's probably a bad idea. I'm a huge believer in competition. If you try to have government run it, then going to the doctor will be like going to the Department of Motor Vehicles — I think it will be a disaster. The fall of all the communism was based on a lack of competition, which would have prevented services from falling into decay. I don't know why more people don't understand that. I'm a big fan of capitalism.

Do you have trouble sleeping with the threat of litigation constantly hanging over you? I don't really get worried about it anymore, because I got all these same threats from university professors. That went on for years and years and nothing came of it. There's probably more of a chance from a doctor, but I'm not losing sleep.

You said you started your first site,, because of an "ogre" of a prof who made your life miserable. Do you ever think maybe you should have just studied harder? No, I don't believe so. I studied more for that class than all my others, I think. She was really nasty, you know? I would go to see her after class for extra help and she was really insulting. I would see other students come out, many in tears. Just a very combative atmosphere, she really had a chip on her shoulder.

Were you a jock or a nerd in university? Definitely a nerd.

Star Trek or Star Wars? I like 'em both so much, it's hard to say. I guess I am definitely a fan of the old Star Trek and the old Star Wars, but I'm not sure I can choose between them. Let's just say, I'll take Lord of the Rings above both of them.

On RateMyProfessors, students can rate teachers on "hotness" — the hottest ones get chili peppers next to their names. Why'd you leave that feature off RateMDs? Well, we thought that medical care deserves more seriousness, I guess, because the worst thing a prof can do to you is fail you when you shouldn't be failed, but with doctors it can be a matter of life and death so we didn't think the chili peppers would be appropriate. It was something we discussed though.

Who do you admire more, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs[Apple founder]? I really don't like either of them. Both of them are monopolists, they do a lot of dirty tricks to their competition. Like when Microsoft used to charge different computer manufacturers for Windows on every new computer they sold whether or not it was installed — stuff like that makes my skin crawl. So, neither.

What if one of them offered to buy you out? If the price is right, I would probably sell. But they would definitely have to pay a premium over what anyone else would pay — and I wouldn't work for them.

Where did you grow up? Rochester, New York.

Did you have a nickname in high school? Yeah. It was Flop.

Does it bother you that drug-seeking patients could easily use your site to locate script-happy docs? No, because it's kind of similar to when students use RateMyProfessors to say, "This prof is really easy, there's no work in his class." If you get the same kind of feedback about getting drugs from a doctor, that will get back to the doctor eventually and give him feedback for changing his ways, that will actually help things in the long run.

How would you rate yourself on punctuality, helpfulness and knowledge, the criteria on RateMDs? I used to always think I should add my own name to every website I have so people can bash me. To tell you the truth, I am so thick skinned now — sticks and stones kind of thing. I think I'm a pretty good programmer, I've done well at all my jobs. I think I'd get a pretty good rating but I'm sure some people would give me a bad rating.

What are the most common complaints on RateMDs? The common complaints in Canada are that people can't get an appointment either because doctors are not accepting new patients or the waiting time is too long, long waits in the waiting rooms, and being rushed out of the appointment without getting questions answered. Those are the most common ones. Also being treated rudely, especially by the staff. Doctors' receptionists seem to really have too much power, and they tend to abuse it, is the impression I get from lots of complaints.

Do you really think this is the best way to monitor a doctor's performance? The primary problem is that the colleges of physicians — in the US, the state medical boards — don't make public any of the complaints about doctors. A doctor could get a hundred complaints about the same issue, but if the board doesn't deem it worthy enough to censor them, then no one will know a single complaint was made. Some issues aren't even considered by state boards, like customer service, politeness, things like that. RateMDs is filling that niche. I told them if they wanted to kill the site, they could just make the info public. But they won't do it. I'm very confident of that.

Anything new for RateMDs on the horizon? We're working on adding office staff ratings to the site, and we are also going to add something to indicate whether doctors are accepting new patients.

Interview conducted by Sam Solomon

What your patients are saying about you Real quotes from

"He has zero bedside manner, rushes people through the revolving door of medicare to collect his dime at the other end. I hope the door hits him in the ass on the way out!"

"Had an operation on my foot. I felt the knife cut into me and screamed. He froze it again and proceeded. Turned out well, but what a nightmarish experience."

"As I was explaining the problems to her she said, 'Shut up I am the one asking the questions.'"

"Told me I had an ear infection in opposite ear to the one I lost hearing in."

"Upon presenting with long term vaginal bleeding (6+ months) he told me I needed to get over it and buy a diaper bag or stocks in Kotex, after not even running any tests..."

"He would rather talk about golf and how busy he is than to address my issues."

"So what if he talks about GOLF? Big deal! The guy has personality and a LIFE too!"

"Doctor missed a critical diagnosis and exhibited terrible bedside manner suggesting during a patient exam that he could not give a confident diagnosis 'until the autopsy is done.' My recommendation: STAY AWAY!"

Read what our HEALTH LAWYER has to say about what to do if a patient slanders you on the net, page 30.



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