Patient Experience Data Can Help You Choose a Physician

IMG_0634Patient experience data can help you choose a new physician. I found myself recently in a situation in which I needed a new primary care physician and an eye surgeon. I hunted for patient experience quality information to help guide my choices.

I changed my health plan in 2015 to a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) to lower my monthly premium. I thought it would be fine to start over with a new primary care physician. There had to be plenty of good one in Washington, DC. I also thought I could delay the choice for a couple of years by staying healthy.

Everything was going smoothly until the last day of the year. I awoke on New Year’s Eve with my left eye was wrapped in Saran. I could see shapes but I couldn’t make out distinct features.

To make a long story short, I had cataract surgery several weeks later. I needed a pre-op approval (along with an EKG) from my primary care physician to clear me for the procedure.

As a side note, I checked whether it made sense to pay out-of-pocket for the pre-op from my former primary care physician. The cost, however, would NOT count toward my deductible. Only services provided by in-network physicians counted toward my deductible. I felt I should get credit for anything I paid. I didn’t pursue this out-of-network option.

Use Patient Experience Data for Primary Care Physicians

My insurer had an online tool that listed physicians in the network. The list, however, specifically excluded any quality information. Quality information had to be front and center because I was flying blind.

I found a great source in Washington Consumers’ Checkbook. It provides primary care physician and surgeon ratings. Checkbook doesn’t limit its ratings to Washington, DC. but provides ratings in over 50 geographic areas. Healthgrades is another source of nationwide physician quality information.

Checkbook bases primary care physicians ratings primarily on patient experience. The ratings measure statistically meaningful criteria within the purview of the patient. This rating is not patient satisfaction such as pleasantness of staff or having a tidy waiting room. The criteria focus on the physician – patient interaction. The topics include:

• Listening to/communicating with you
• Personal manner (courtesy, respect, sensitivity, friendliness)
• Spending enough time with you
• Seeking your input in making decisions
• Coordinating your care
• Giving prevention/self-help advice
• Thoroughness, carefulness, and apparent competence
• Arranging to see you quickly when you request an appointment
• Giving timely, helpful advice by phone or email
• Keeping down office waiting time
• Overall quality

The full criteria that Checkbook uses can be found here.

I used their list of primary care physicians in the District of Columbia as my starting place. I only investigated ones that were rated “high” in quality and were close by.

I looked each one up on my insurer’s online search function to see if they were in my insurer’s HMO.  If so, I checked if they were accepting new patients. If so, I googled them to review their Healthgrades profile to see if they had the attributes that were important to me. In my case, I  checked their age and verified their location.

I came up with a list of five primary care physicians after about three hours of work. I called each to see how soon I could get an appointment. It turned out that only two of the five were accepting new patients. The insurer’s site needs some updating! I took the first appointment I could get.

My experience with my new primary care physician was superb. I had familiarized myself with the patient experience criteria beforehand and he hit all the right notes. He spent sufficient time with me, listened to my answers, and carefully probed where necessary. It was a high-quality experience. I was thankful I had used the patient experience data as my starting point.

I provided my patient experience feedback through Checkbook. I wanted others to learn from my experience. I also wanted to do my part to improve our health system so that good patient experiences are rewarded.

Patient Experience Data not as Helpful with My Surgeon Selection

My optometrist gave me a recommendation for an in-network surgeon. I took the first available appointment. In the meantime I searched for quality information about him and others. I thought if I found someone “better” I’d cancel and go elsewhere.

Finding objective ratings on surgical outcomes was difficult. I thought it would be a breeze to find outcome ratings for cataract surgeons given the prevalence of the condition.  No such luck. Neither Checkbook nor Healthgrades provides physician outcome ratings cataract surgery.

Both sources, however, provided patient experience data for surgeons. This information was helpful but not persuasive. I wanted a surgeon with great results. For example, I wanted data on how successful the surgery was in meeting patient expectations 30 days after the procedure. That information would have been helpful.

I wasn’t building a long-term relationship with this physician. I was willing to look past a less than stellar experience if the results were better. Although I would have like to have had both outcome and patient experience data.

I took my optometrist’s recommendation. The surgery went fine. The patient experience was okay – not great. But it was in line with this surgeon’s patient experience data.

In sum, patient experience data can help you choose a primary care physician. It was, however, not as helpful in finding a surgeon. For surgeons, I would have preferred outcome data.

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