physician compare

Healthcare Reform

How Useful Is Physician Compare? Experts Weigh In

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physician compare

Last month, Medicare started implementing improvements to the Physician Compare site in response to criticisms, improvements aimed at making the site more usable and useful for people searching for doctors online. But many experts still have issues with the site, which launched in 2010.

“It’s good that the government is making information available on physician quality, but overall I don’t find the site very useful,” said David E. Williams, president of the Health Business Group.

“The ability to actually compare physicians, better search functionality, real quality indicators, and more user-friendly site design would make it better,” Williams told HealthBiz Decoded.

Data on Physician Compare come from the Provider Enrollment, Chain, and Ownership System (PECOS), newly supplemented with Medicare claims information, according to the Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Users can already view basic Medicare professional data like name, specialties, practice locations, group affiliations, and hospital affiliations that link to the hospital’s profile on Hospital Compare.

The redesign added search by location and by ZIP code, plus  a quality programs section to each group practice profile page.

It also includes a notation and check mark for individuals that participate in the Medicare EHR Incentive Program.

There are other, smaller versions of Physician Compare operating on a regional level, one of the first of which was Minnesota Community Measurement (MCM), a statewide nonprofit.

“People should have a resource like Physician Compare but it’s going to be much more effective if it’s on a regional basis around the providers that you can really see,” MCM president Jim Chase told Health Biz Decoded. “It wouldn’t help you to know what’s going on in Boise, Idaho, with physicians at this point because I’m never going to go there for care.”

“The vision that Medicare could be the entity that provides this kind of information that’s useful on a national basis is pretty daunting,” he said. “There’s a number of regional collaboratives, but we’ve been one of the first for about the past eight years. In the state of Minnesota we have quality measures on physicians across all payers, across the entire state.”

His site isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done better than Physician Compare, he said.

“On the Physician Compare side it’s kind of hard to know if it’s recent information, how it’s been validated,” he said. “There isn’t much critical information yet.”

Despite being named “Physician Compare,” the Medicare site still makes it easier to compare group practices than individual physicians, Williams said.

“There are some indicators that are useful to compare at the practice level, including administrative elements such as waiting time and clarity of communications,” Williams said. “But when physicians seek care on their own or for their loved ones, they look for specific individuals. Why shouldn’t the public?”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is considering adding star ratings to the Hospital Compare site, but has not said that the move would extend to Physician Compare. The site does not currently include ratings or review-style feedback from patients or other providers.

“How well did they communicate, how well did they coordinate your care, how easy was it to get an appointment?” Chase said. “I think that’s important for people to see.”

Perhaps the most essential element still lacking on the site is cost, he said. That means the cost of individual procedures, and also the total cost of dealing with a chronic condition like diabetes.

“I think there are ways to do that,” he said. “Medicare is starting to show some interesting sharing data on that but they don’t have the format yet, so they’re not sharing it.”

And although Medicare provides a lot of data, other insurers should be involved too, according to David Williams of Health Business Group.

“If Physician Compare adds data, it may become useful,” Williams wrote in a post at Med City News. “But it will still have the problem of incorporating information just on participants in federal programs like Medicare, rather than looking at a provider’s entire population, which typically includes plenty of commercial patients.”

“When you think about cost and payment, for example, Medicare pays differently than others,” Chase said. “You really need to be able to combine that with different information so everybody in the community can see what’s in it for them, how much they are paying compared to others. You can’t do that with just one data source like Medicare.”

But providers and health systems want the assurance that their data will be used fairly. they want the chance to review any content before it is publicly posted, if they’re going to release it to sites like Physician Compare, Chase added.

CMS plans on providing a 30-day preview period prior to publication of quality data on Physician Compare so that group practices and Accountable Care Organizations can view their data as they will appear on the site before they are publicly reported.

“This is not an easy thing to accomplish but I think it’s very important for communities to get healthcare at a better value for everybody,” Chase said. “It’s critical, not just for our health but to make sure we’re competitive in the world.”