So Zagat will now be rating doctors, using the methods it perfected helping you find the best sushi in Brooklyn Heights. What’s next, Consumer Reports rating grad schools? Fodor rating auto mechanics?
Whatever you think of Zagat’s cross-dressing, it again demonstrates the bottomless market for doctor rankings. HealthGrades, the Colorado company that breathlessly delivers its “200,000 Americans died from medical errors in 200X!” pronouncements every year (grabbing a bunch of headlines, despite the fact that this report is based on measures that were not intended for this purpose and really aren’t measuring deaths from errors), appears to be doing quite well, thank you, largely fueled by its doctor ratings. And every metropolis’s city magazine has its “[Your City’s Name Goes Here]’s Best Doctors” issue, based almost entirely on peer surveys. Most docs scoff at these ratings (particularly docs like me who haven’t made their city’s list), but they clearly move magazines. [I’ll discuss hospital rankings, especially US News & World Report’s Best Hospitals list, in a future posting.]
Clearly, real people want to know who is a good doctor. But how should we be approaching this task?
I have the privilege of serving on the board of the American Board of Internal Medicine. ABIM, and the other specialty boards, have generally taken their charge to be to determine “competence” (with board pass rates generally above 90%, a pretty low bar) and then not to differentiate further. A doc is either board certified or she’s not. End of report.
ABIM’s recently finalized strategic plan includes a commitment to make public more information about diplomates if and when it feels such distinctions are scientifically valid and dissemination would promote high quality care. Dr. Kevin Weiss, the new president of the American Board of Medical Specialties (the umbrella organization for all the specialty boards) might go even further, faster. He recently went on record as favoring having the Boards enter the doctor ranking business – not just determining competence, but differentiating excellence from not-so-much. In a recent talk to the ABIM board in Dallas, Dr. Weiss held a copy of Dallas Magazine’s Best Doctors issue and dramatically observed that if the Boards don’t get into this game, others – with far less allegiance to scientific and psychometric Truth – will. Needless to say, his remarks generated a wee bit of controversy.
I’m also on Google’s Healthcare Advisory Board. [Note that my comments about ABIM and Google represent my own opinions, not those of these fine organizations, and do not divulge any trade secrets. You decide whether to buy more Google stock on your own.] Anyhooo, it wouldn’t surprise you to learn that Google is also thinking about what contribution it can make to the doctor rating “space.” But how to balance consumer rankings (a la Zagat), which will invariably tilt toward bedside manner and office amenities (not unimportant things, but ones that may be quite different from clinical acumen), with more meaningful assessments of clinical competence? And, as I discussed earlier this month, even when you add standard process and outcome measures to the brew, we’re still stuck scratching our heads about how to factor in clinical knowledge and decision making, things that today’s quality measures completely whiff on.
The stakes are immense, and a balanced approach is more likely to bear fruit than any single peephole. Ultimately, if I’m choosing a doc for me or a loved one, I’d like to know it all: bedside manner (4 stars from Zagat), structural measures (is the doctor’s office computerized?), process measures (are diabetics getting statins appropriately?), surrogate outcomes (what’s the average hemoglobin A1c?), and hard outcomes (what are the risk-adjusted mortality or hospitalization rates?). And then I’d like the appropriate specialty board (ABIM, American Board of Surgery, etc.) to tell me whether the physician is meaningfully engaged in quality improvement activities, and how well he or she did on the certifying exam – the best measure we have of knowledge and clinical judgment. Yes, you heard me right: I’d like the Board to tell me whether the doc was in 5th percentile on the certifying exam or the 87th. It doesn’t pass the smell test to say that we consider both these board certified docs to be undifferentiate-able. In this new era of transparency, if we physicians would want that information before choosing a doc for ourselves (and I sure would), then I believe that patients should have access to it as well.
And then I’d like Google or somebody else to put all of this together into an attractive, user-friendly page that pops up when I type “Best Doctor Diabetes San Francisco” into a search engine, along with directions to the office, a link to his appointment calendar… and a parking spot.
Coming soon? The people have spoken, and the people have an uncanny way of getting what they want.