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New online information sources to help you choose a doctor

Written by Steve Findlay

How do you find a doctor that’s right for you?  Most people still rely primarily on the advice of family and friends, and the recommendations of other doctors. But there are increasingly good sources of information online these days, including consumer reviews, ratings and databases that show doctors’ ties to drug and device companies.

In late March, Consumer Reports released a new resource–ratings of primary care group practices in six states and two metro areas.  Even if you don’t live in one of the eight states where Consumer Reports has rated doctors (California, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin), you might want to check out how they did it and the advice they give on finding a good doctor.

In addition, the cover story of the May issue of Consumer Reports magazine is entitled “What You Don’t Know About Your Doctor Could Hurt You.” It probes the failure of government and the medical profession to stop bad or troubled doctors from practicing medicine, even after they’ve been caught.

Consumer Reports is just the latest media outlet to release physician ratings.  The online media organization ProPublica, for example, used Medicare data to rate some 16,000 surgeons nationwide in 2015, with a focus on complications after surgery, as I reported on Just Care back in July 2015.

ProPublica also provides a searchable database of doctors who have received payments and gifts from drug and medical device companies. A recent analysis by the group provides strong evidence that docs who take payments prescribe more expensive brand name drugs than docs who don’t take the payments.

The Affordable Care Act mandated creation of the database, and drug and device companies are required to divulge the payments.

Another recent web launch, Amino.com, says it can match you up with doctors in your area who have treated the largest number of patients like you—same condition, gender, and age range.  Like ProPublica, Amino relies on Medicare data that it says encompasses 890,000 doctors and other providers, four billion insurance claims, and 188 million people. It’s still early days for this site, but over time, it could be a valuable service.

What about web sites that allow consumers to rate their doctors?   A 2012 study found that one in four Americans had consulted such a site.  They can provide a slice of useful information, but buyer beware: many doctors listed on such sites have been rated by fewer than 10 patients.  That’s not enough to generate a meaningful, statistically valid rating, experts say.  Thirty consumer reviews is a minimum.  In addition, there’s still concern that the sites can be gamed by doctors, although there’s no proof that’s widespread. In sum, you might want to check out these reviews, but you should not rely on them to pick your doctor at this point in time. 

For those interested in exploring this topic in greater depth, the April issue of the journal Health Affairs has a batch of relevant articles.   You’ll see my article on provider ratings.

Enhanced scrutiny of physician quality of care and treatment results—and the reporting of that to consumers—has been building slowly for years.  It’s poised to accelerate in 2016 and beyond.  And that’s a good thing for consumers.

Here’s more from Just Care on choosing a doctor:

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