In the news

The News & Observer
Alan M. Wolf

Blue Cross and Blue Shield is teaming up with Zagat dining guide to provide doctor rankings for its members.

The state's largest health insurer, which covers more than 3.7 million people, will announce the online rating service today.

Zagat will collect and compile survey information on physicians from Blue Cross members using a 30-point scale on four criteria: trust, communication, availability and office environment. There also will be a comments section.

The move is the latest in a push by insurers, regulators and consumers to provide more data and transparency in the nation's health-care system.

Already, patients can find a wealth of doctor data and recommendations online, although some of that information can be biased or unreliable. The N.C. Hospital Association started posting comparisons online last year.

Zagat, known for its guides to restaurants, hotels and more, started rating doctors last fall for WellPoint, which runs Blue Cross plans in 14 states including California, New York and Georgia.

"We could have done this ourselves, but it's one of the world's most trusted sources of information about where to eat, where to stay," said Don Bradley, chief medical officer for Blue Cross of North Carolina. "Their reputation and methodology were extremely important in why we chose to work with them.

"This really comes from our members' request for more information," he added. "Some physicians will change the way they do business and improve their service."

But critics question whether providing limited information on doctors' personalities and other nonmedical factors will really help consumers. And some wonder whether information provided by insurers seeking to control costs will be prejudiced.

"Consumers have a right to know about their doctors, period," said Robert Seligson, CEO of the N.C. Medical Society. But "any time data is available, there's potential for it to be misused or misinterpreted. The information needs to be accurate and reliable."

With the Zagat ratings, Blue Cross members won't find any data on a North Carolina physician until there are at least 10 surveys on the doctor, to help avoid skewed data, Bradley said. And comments will be screened to eliminate anything inappropriate.

As more health-care information becomes available to consumers, medical education and experience, malpractice histories and other factors should weigh more heavily for consumers, said Shana Becker, staff attorney with N.C. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit watchdog group.

"It sounds like a good start, but we need to do more evaluation of doctors' performance and hospital safety," she said.

One potential problem with efforts like the Zagat guide is the potential for competitors to submit negative reviews of a rival physician, said Jerry C. Bernstein, one of 15 doctors with Raleigh Pediatric Associates. "The Internet has been great, but any fool can post anything."

At one point, a group of parents of home-schooled children gave Bernstein's practice generally good marks online. But the group pointed out that "if you can get past the look of the building, the doctors are great," Bernstein said. "It certainly hastened our move" to new offices.

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