Americans love their doctors. But Michele Monserratt-Ramos says love isn't always enough. When it comes to choosing a medical professional, she says, information is power.
As a patient advocate and Torrance-based activist for open records, she stresses the need for consumers to look beyond a doctor's resume and consult the many sources that are increasingly available, often online.
Consider, for instance, valuable information that can sometimes be found in civil and criminal court records — typically open to the public. These can provide important information about a physician that other sources may not.
FOR THE RECORD:
Doctor evaluations: A Healthcare Watch column in the Feb. 9 Business section about physicians' background and ratings gave the website name of an organization providing ratings as CalQualityCompare.org. The site is CalQualityCare .org, managed by the California Healthcare Foundation. The column also erroneously referred to it as a state ranking. —
When researching a physician's background, she has found that some information never makes it to the public records. After reviewing files at the Medical Board of California, she said, "I felt I had done my due diligence, and it gave me this false sense of security."
Today, there are a number of efforts underway to make meaningful data about doctors readily available to the public. However, it remains a hodgepodge of information that consumers must piece together to gain a sense of a physician's work.
For now, experts say, there are a variety of tools available to help assess physician quality.
First consider what you're looking for. Do you need a doctor's office that's going to give you same-day appointments? Is a friendly and responsive office staff a must? Also important is whether you're looking for a primary care physician or a specialist to treat a rare disease.
Be clear about your needs before you search for data, says Josh Klapow, chief behavioral scientist with ChipRewards Inc., a Birmingham, Ala., healthcare technology company.
Check the basics. Scrutinize the website of your doctor or medical group. Here you can check out a doctor's schooling, training and sometimes even his or her philosophy of medicine. Specialists typically get additional training and must pass exams. Check to see whether your doctor has been certified in his specialty. And ask around to see if your friends, neighbors and co-workers know anything about the doctor.
Doctors are licensed by the Medical Board of California. Go online and see what the board's public records tell you. For a small fee you can check your county's Superior Court files online to see if your doctor has any civil and/or criminal complaints. You can also check newspaper articles.
Commercial online rating tools. Commercial physician rating websites such as RateMDs, Vitals, Healthgrades and Angie's List offer a forum for patients to provide feedback about their experience with their doctor.
Generally, these sites display information about a doctor's license, certification status and other information. They primarily present patient feedback. When there are few reviews, the physician's overall score can be skewed and not terribly informative.
Beware of ratings based on a small group of patients, said Dr. John Santa, director of Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. "I think you need to be pretty cautious about making judgments based on a small sample."
New state ranking. Californians can now search for information about medical groups — as well as hospitals and nursing homes — by consulting the website CalQualityCompare.org.
The tool captures information on medical groups providing care to most commercially insured patients in California. The scores represent patients' experience with a medical group's communication, timeliness of the care and service provided, friendliness of office staff and care coordination.
"Asking patients about their experience is, we think, an important part of the performance evaluation," Santa says.
Information about the quality of clinical care that physicians provide, however, isn't available.
The other shortcoming is that you won't find information about your particular physician; data can be found only about the larger medical group with which your doctor practices.
Another feature of the site is that it offers consumers the chance to contribute to physician quality data. You can go to the CalQualityCare.org site and rate your healthcare providers through a 10-question survey.
Office of the Patient Advocate. For clinical measures of physician group quality, you can check out the California Office of the Patient Advocate, which rates health plans by how well their network of doctors meets national standards for assessing and treating certain health conditions.
"Those are developed not by patients reporting their experience but by reviewing claims data and seeing whether or not the patients actually did get the services that are recommended," says Maribeth Shannon, director of the California Healthcare Foundation's Market & Policy Monitor Program.
As with other tools, ratings are available at the medical group level, which means you won't find information about your individual physician.
Medicare.gov. The federal government offers a tool called Physician Compare, through which doctors participating with Medicare are identified by their involvement in one or more quality programs. Consumers logging on to the site will see a green check mark on their physician's profile page if he or she participates in the programs.
Although involvement in these programs may suggest a commitment to quality, experts acknowledge that it provides a somewhat loose link.
Resources and links
Physician licensing and complaint and disciplinary information: Medical Board of California
Medicare rankings: Medicare.gov