Q. What’s the purpose of Prescriber Checkup?

A. We’ve made it easy to search for doctors and other health providers who are active in Medicare’s prescription drug program, called Part D. You can find out how many prescriptions each wrote and which drugs were prescribed. You can compare your doctor with others in his or her specialty and state. And you can check out the drugs you are taking or any that your doctor recommends.

Is this new information?

Until now, the identities of doctors and which drugs they prescribed in Medicare Part D have not been public. ProPublica obtained the data under the Freedom of Information Act and investigated prescribing patterns. We are making the data available to help consumers stay informed.

What is Medicare Part D?

Congress approved the Medicare Modernization Act in 2003 to provide affordable prescription drugs to seniors and the disabled. More than 35 million people are enrolled in private insurance plans that cover most of the cost of their drugs. The federal government spent $62 billion subsidizing the program last year.

Where does this information come from?

When pharmacies dispense prescriptions to Medicare patients, they transmit information to Part D plans about the patient, the prescriber, the drug, its strength and retail cost. The plans pay the claims and then submit the data to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare. Although ProPublica analyzed 2007-10 data, only data for 2010 — covering more than 1 billion prescriptions and refills — are searchable at this time.

Are all health providers included in this tool?

No. To be included, a health-care provider had to write at least 50 prescriptions for at least one drug, including refills, within the Part D program in 2010. Nearly 350,000 providers met that criterion. Providers include doctors, nurses, physician assistants and others who can prescribe. The data do not identify patients.

What sort of things can I learn?

For all health providers included in this tool, you can see how many prescriptions they wrote, their most-prescribed drugs and how they compare with others in their state who have declared the same specialty. You can search for a specific doctor or browse by state or medication. You can also identify top prescribers for each drug, state and specialty.

How can this be helpful?

You can learn whether your physician or other health professional has experience using a particular medication. You can see whether a drug is commonly prescribed. You also can see which drugs other doctors frequently prescribe and compare them with medications you or a family member are taking or are considering. You can see whether your doctor is prescribing a drug that his or her peers do not routinely choose.

Where can I look up my doctor or my drugs?

On the main search page of Prescriber Checkup is a box to enter your health provider’s name. Also on the page is a list of the 500 most-prescribed drugs in Part D. If your drug is on that list, click on it to view the top prescribers.

Why is my health provider not in here?

Medications administered to Medicare enrollees during an office visit or in a hospital are covered by another part of Medicare, not Part D. That means it will not show up in our data. In addition, providers who did not write at least 50 prescriptions (including refills) of at least one drug under Medicare Part D will not show up.

What do the rankings mean?

On each prescriber’s page, drugs are listed according to the number of claims. The adjacent column shows the rank of those drugs among all prescribers in that specialty and state. When there are 10 or fewer in a given state, no comparison rankings will be shown.

Why is there additional information about narcotics and antipsychotics?

These two classes of medications are sometimes given for inappropriate reasons. Misuse and abuse of narcotics led to about 16,000 overdose deaths in 2010. Antipsychotics are frequently given to dementia patients, though it increases their risk of death. Critics say they are used as chemical restraints in nursing homes. A high rate of prescribing of either kind of drug doesn’t itself signal a problem, but the data allow you to compare prescribers and ask informed questions.

Why note the percentage of patients 65 and older?

Medicare covers seniors as well as people with disabilities, so prescribers’ drug choices may vary based on the nature of their practices. Also, the American Geriatrics Society has compiled what’s called the Beers list of drugs that are risky for seniors and might be inappropriate. If you are a senior and take one of these drugs, you may want to ask your provider about it. We’ve created a chart with the most-prescribed Beers drugs to the elderly in 2010.

How do you know a provider’s specialty?

We used the primary specialty chosen by the health professionals themselves. Providers are required to identify this specialty when they apply for a federal health-care ID number. (In cases for which we did not have a prescriber’s ID number, or if a specialty was not specified, no comparisons are shown.) A provider’s chosen specialty doesn’t always mean the person has special training or certification. For example, some doctors select a specialty called “Specialist,” which can be a catchall for providers of different fields.

Also, doctors may have incorrectly entered their specialty or may have changed specialties without updating their profiles. Some providers also classified themselves as a group practice, and we identified those in parentheses next to the specialty. The date each provider updated his or her profile is noted.

My doctor ranks as a high prescriber for some drugs. Is that bad?

Not necessarily. Some doctors treat more seniors and disabled patients than their peers, and naturally their numbers would be higher. For instance, they may see many patients in institutional settings, such as nursing homes. At the same time, if your doctor’s most frequently prescribed drugs differ from those of his or her peers, it might be worth asking about.

What does it mean if my doctor has longer or shorter average prescription lengths?

When a provider writes a prescription, he or she specifies how many days the patient should take it. We looked at the average length of prescriptions for every drug and every provider and compared it with peers in the state. In some cases, for example, a provider may write shorter prescriptions while adjusting a patient’s medication. That could make the provider’s prescription count appear higher than those of peers. On the other end, if providers write prescriptions for more days than average, they may have fewer prescriptions.

Do providers report to Medicare the drugs they prescribe?

No. Drugs are attributed to each prescriber by a pharmacy as part of a reimbursement claim. They include both original prescriptions and refills. The totals do not include prescriptions written but not filled. In some cases, physicians specializing in nursing home care told ProPublica that their totals also appear to include prescriptions by others in their practices.

Does this include prescriptions outside of Medicare?

No. ProPublica was able to get this information from Medicare because it is a public program. Private insurers are under no obligation to release prescribing data and do not.

What about the cost of drugs?

Each prescriber’s profile page notes the total retail price of their drugs and the average price per prescription. These prices include patients’ co-payments and the amount reimbursed by Part D insurance plans. But the costs do not reflect confidential rebates that drug companies negotiate with insurers. As such, the listed price is likely higher than the final price paid. A report from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services calculated overall manufacturer rebates of 19 percent for the 100 brand-name drugs that Part D spent the most money on in 2009.

What does the bar graph in the “On Prescriptions” section of a provider’s page mean?

The bar shows how similar a provider is to his or her peers based on the choice and amount of drugs prescribed. If a prescriber is far to the right of the chart, that provider is doing something very different from others. Look at the rankings below the bar graph to see how the prescriber’s top drugs differ from the rank for others in his or her specialty and state.

Is anything not included in the data?

The data don’t cover Medicare enrollees who receive drug coverage from their current or former employers, the Department of Veterans Affairs or some retiree health plans. Part D does not include drugs dispensed in a hospital, hospice or during some short rehabilitation stays in a skilled nursing facility. It also does not include medications administered in a doctor’s office, such as intravenous cancer drugs. These are covered by other parts of Medicare.

Do doctors change their favored drugs over time?

Providers may change their drug choices for a variety of reasons. New research might show that a drug works better or worse than previously thought. In addition, since 2010, some brand-name drugs have lost patent protection and doctors might now be prescribing the drug in its generic form. Additionally, new drugs have come on the market.