Give Your Doctor a Check-Up

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Patients are increasingly using the web to examine their doctors. Here are 10 sites that lend a hand.

Jennifer Yarbrough was 24 weeks pregnant when she moved from Oakland, Calif., to Brooklyn, N.Y. She didn't have the luxury of time to meet with multiple obstetricians. She needed to find a good doctor to monitor her high risk pregnancy. She turned to the web for help.

The 35-year-old mother-to-be started off with her health plan's directory. What she found was a sea of names and addresses, but no real criteria on which to base a decision. So she logged onto MD4me.com, a New York-based web site where patients rate their doctors. Yarbrough quickly found an obstetrician with very high satisfaction ratings who was also willing to take new patients.

"I would definitely recommend using the web," says Yarbrough, who's due in early September. Already, she has met with her doctor several times, and is now focusing on other important things, like decorating her nursery.

The web is known for many things, but information about doctor performance isn't one of them. You can easily find out which medical school a doctor attended. But figuring out how he or she has succeeded or failed on the job takes some digging.

Later this year, the Ambulatory Care Quality Alliance (AQA), a group of health care organizations and corporations, will roll out standard quality ratings that will help people make more informed physician-selection decisions. The ratings will help identify gaps in quality by measuring physician performance against claim data, says Jeffrey Kang, chief medical officer for Cigna, who also worked with the AQA. They might not tell you if a doctor is warm and fuzzy, but at least they should help you find out if your doctor has a history of providing less-than-stellar care.

In the meantime, here are 10 web sites that can make the task of picking a good doctor a little easier. We would recommend that you cross-reference information from as many sources as possible with your insurer's directory to get a sense of where your prospective doctor stands. While some of these sites charge a fee, plenty are free.

1. National Committee of Quality Assurance
If you suffer from diabetes or a cardiac condition, this might be the web site for you. The NCQA's Recognized Physician Directory allows patients to search for doctors in their geographical area who demonstrate a high level of performance in providing quality care for diabetics, heart disease and stroke victims.

The NCQA measures physicians by analyzing data that doctors submit based on the care they provide patients. With diabetes, for example, the NCQA wants to see the percent of patients who have properly controlled low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and the rate of patients that are monitored for kidney disease. You can also find quality ratings on individual health plans and physician practice groups.

Strength: It's the only web site of its kind to rate individual doctors using a standard methodology of care.

Weakness: You won't find information on physicians who focus on other ailments not related to diabetes and heart problems.

2. Leapfrog Group
A good hospital is likely to have many good doctors. So how do you find a good hospital? One way is to jump onto Leapfrog, which monitors quality based on voluntary surveys from hospitals in 28 regions of the country.

Strength: Leapfrog's Hospital Quality and Safety Survey information focuses on four measures: the number of high risk procedures, such as a coronary-artery bypass and high-risk deliveries, a hospital performs each year (studies prove that success rates increase as the number of procedures performed increases); the use of computerized physician order entry to help avoid simple medical mistakes; the employment of specially trained intensive-care doctors; and the implementation of 27 safety practices, including a high nurse-to-patient ratio and a standard policy of repeating verbal orders to ensure no miscommunications.

Weakness: Some critics complain that Leapfrog's surveys don't cover enough procedures. Perhaps more important, you won't find a listing of doctors who are affiliated with the surveyed hospitals. To do that, you could go directly to a hospital and call its referral line. Alternatively, some insurance companies might include a doctor's hospital affiliation in its directory.

3. Healthfinder
This government web site provides links to outside provider directories from such sources as the American Gastroenterological Association and the National Society of Clinical Oncology.

Strength: Healthfinder offers handy directories for all types of provider care as well as useful articles and tools.

Weakness: Don't expect the government to weigh in on the quality of care you might receive from a physician.

4. American Medical Association
Want to know if your doctor is licensed and where he went to school? Look for the American Medical Association's Physician Select tool, which offers information on virtually every licensed doctor in the United States.

Strength: Thanks to its simple design, you can look up a specific doctor by last name or you can search for licensed doctors by specialty within your zip code. The web site also offers a brochure with tips on how to find a good doctor.

Weakness: It left us wanting more. It doesn't tell patients what hospital the doctor is affiliated with or if he or she was ever disciplined.

5. American Board of Medical Specialties
Here's another web site that tells you some basic education, licensing and board certification information about physicians.

Strength: If you're looking for a cardiologist, why not go directly to the source? The American Board of Medical Specialties lets you do just that. It links users to 24 member boards, such as the American Board of Dermatology and the American Board of Family Medicine. Each member web site also provides additional educational articles about its specialty and its associated ailments.

Weakness: It doesn't provide you with much more information than you would get from the American Medical Association's web site. 6. State Federation of Medical Boards
If your doctor has received a slap on the wrist — or worse — it's here.

Strength: The State Federation of Medical Boards acts as a clearinghouse for 69 different regional medical boards, and will cross-reference all of its member sites to see if an individual doctor was disciplined anywhere in the country.

Weakness: It charges a fee, $9.95 for the first report and $2.95 for each additional report. You can save yourself money by doing the legwork yourself and contacting individual state medical boards. You can find links here.

7. HealthGrades
This site charges for many of its services, but it might be money well spent. Just plug in the name of a physician and receive a full report detailing everything from his or her education and training to detailed information about state or federal disciplinary actions that may have been taken against him or her during the last five years.

Strength: This site is a time saver, since it combines information you'd find on other sites, such as Leapfrog and the State Federation of Medical Boards all in one place. HealthGrades also publishes its own ratings of hospitals, and 90% of the information is free of charge.

Weakness: The first report costs $7.95, and each additional report costs $2.95.

8. Consumers' Checkbook Guide to Top Doctors
Want to know who doctors recommend? Here's a web site that asks physicians in 50 of the largest metropolitan areas just that question.

Strength: The database includes 20,000 top-rated physicians across 33 different specialties. You can sort the results by name, zip code, specialty and by the number of recommendations a doctor received.

Weakness: There's no way to know if a doctor is simply recommending his golf buddy or a pal from medical school. It costs $24.95 to access the database for two years.

9. America's Top Doctors
Need a second opinion? Here's another web site that surveys doctors for their top recommendations.

Strength: America's Top Doctors offers two membership levels. The general membership is free and allows consumers to search for physicians on staff at Partnership for Excellence hospitals. (These hospitals pay for the service.) For a more objective recommendation, you can sign up for a premium membership that costs $21.95 a year, which provides access to the company's entire database. (Physicians don't pay to be a part of this database.)

Weakness: The site focuses on specialists, not general practitioners, although they do happen to poll for primary care in New York and Chicago.

10. Ratemds.com
Call it the TripAdvisor.com for the medical industry. Here, it's the patients who are doing the reviewing. If a doctor's bedside manner was pleasant, expect to see a smiley face. If he or she was condescending, you'll see an angry purple face.

Strength: Who better to rate a doctor than patients?

Weakness: The site is still in its infancy and carries just 7,600 ratings. You might be able to find a similar site that's more targeted to your area. For example, MD4me.com concentrates in the New York region.