Patient Polls Measure Physicians' Vital Signs

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By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Patients have a growing number of options for reading evaluations of their doctors online -- at Angie's List, Yelp and Vitals.com, to name a few. But one person's rant about her time spent in the waiting room can't really lead to an informed decision about which doctor to visit.

A Washington nonprofit organization, Consumers' Checkbook, has created a new model for online doctor reviews that is designed to address such shortcomings. Instead of being based on Zagat-style blurbs, self-selected and anonymous, this model uses surveys.

"It can't just be the doctor's friends [writing reviews] and it can't be the doctor's worst enemy doing it, either," Checkbook's president, Robert Krughoff, says.

In a pilot program in Denver, Memphis and the Kansas City area, the organization polled patients who had seen their doctor in the last year, randomly selecting them from a database of insurance company claim forms. In Kansas City, this resulted in an average of 58 ratings for each of 710 doctors, mostly primary care physicians.

Checkbook is working on a New York survey for this fall; there are no plans yet for the Washington area. The cost of performing the survey, about $110 per doctor, is covered by fees that insurance companies pay to publish results about the doctors in their networks. The data are also compiled into charts and available for free at http://www.checkbook.org/patientcentral.

Most of the survey questions focus on doctor-patient communication, such as "How often did this doctor explain things in a way that was easy to understand?" and "How often did this doctor listen carefully to you?" Other questions address access to care, including how long patients have to wait for appointments and how quickly the doctor's office responds to phone calls.

Checkbook assigns each doctor an overall rating, on a scale of 0 to 100, and also shows how he or she performed on specific survey questions. Checkbook juxtaposes each doctor's rating with the average number earned by his or her peers. Doctors in Denver had an average score of 79; Kansas City, 81; and Memphis, 83.

"There's quite a bit of research evidence that shows that doctors who listen better do better diagnoses, which is kind of obvious," Krughoff says. "Doctors who explain things better are more likely to get patients to do their part, to comply. You can't expect a patient to do his or her part if they don't know why and what it is."

Comments: saslowr@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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