The new edition of Washington Consumers' Checkbook lists top-notch primary care physicians, based on ratings by 20,000 patients over the last four years.

The magazine names scores of doctors who earned above-average reviews from at least 10 patients. Practitioners who received fewer ratings are not identified -- nor are those who scored low enough to make their colleagues shine by comparison.

The System screened the lengthy list down to those who received an average overall quality rating of at least 95 from 50 or more patients. This produced a Golden Dozen. Contacting a few of them illustrated frustrations often faced by people seeking a new doctor.

Michael Newman said he and his partner, Alan Stone -- they're both among the Twelve -- accept some new patients into their K Street NW practice -- "maybe half the time yes. . . . If they're just doctor-shopping, no."

Newman was not surprised to hear that his patients scored him a bit low on seeing them promptly. "If someone's sick, we see him," said Newman, and that can delay appointments with other patients.

Calls to the 19th Street NW office of Ace Lipson are answered by a long recording that advises people to press "2" for one thing and "3" for another or to hold for a receptionist. There was a whole lot of holding going on one afternoon last week, which may explain why Lipson scored only a 63 percent on "being easy to reach by phone."

Contacting the M Street NW office of Bryan Arling is much easier: He scored a 94 percent on the "easy to reach" marker. But he's not accepting new patients. On the other hand, his partner David Patterson -- who's also a Golden Dozen titleist -- has a few openings on his dance card. On the other other hand, neither of them participates in insurance networks.

The sixth District doctor in the Top Twelve is Gary Koritzinsky (K Street NW). In Maryland, the leaders are Rockville's Christopher Dunford, George Graves of Chevy Chase and Barry Rosenbaum of Kensington. In Virginia, Peter Fecanin of Fairfax was a leader, as was Bruce Lessin of McLean. But even their rave reviews were surpassed by David Leonard of Fairfax, who earned a 100 percent score for overall quality from 54 patients rating his work.

Checkbook, which appears twice a year, suggests some questions to ask when seeking a primary care physician:

* Is he or she board-certified -- i.e., extensively trained in a particular branch of medicine?

* Does the doctor teach medical students part time?

* Does the doctor's office use electronic medical records, especially in a system that prompts the practitioner to check for drug interactions and to consider diagnoses and treatments? (Few doctors use these tools, the magazine says, despite evidence that they can improve care.)

Newman has simpler advice: Find a doctor, he said, who communicates "the joy of practicing medicine."

-- Tom Graham

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