Measuring doctor quality, how’s a patient to choose?

I like my primary care doctor and truly believe that he delivers high quality care, but like most Americans I have no objective data on which to judg. Mostly it is a gut feeling and a sense that he is ordering and performing the correct tests  based on my age and my personal and medical histories. 

Moreover, I like him and we communicate well, so I haven’t bothered to seek publically available data in an effort to assess the quality of his care. And a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that would be waste of time anyway.

Commonly used criteria for assessments of doctors such as medical malpractice claims, disciplinary history, and age, do not correspond well to the overall quality of care, according to the study in Tuesday’s issue of the medical journal.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the Rand Corp. used publically available measures of doctor quality and compared them to a detailed assessment of care using administrative data. They found that “few characteristics of individual physicians were associated with higher performance.”

The study used claims data on more than a million adult patients in Massachusetts in 2004 and 2005 to examine the quality of 10,408 doctors in that state. Three characteristics were statistically associated with higher quality: Board-certified doctors scored 3.3 percent higher than those who had not attained certification. Women doctors scored 1.5 percent higher than men. And graduates of U.S. medical schools scored 1 percent higher than those who graduated from international schools.

Still, the differences were small. Indeed, the authors concluded: “There is little evidence to suggest that a patient will consistently receive higher quality care by switching to a physician with these characteristics.”

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