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A patient's guide to the Treatment Tracker

When choosing a doctor who's right for you, you don't have to rely exclusively on a friend's recommendation or a referral. Now you can check whether your medical provider practices similarly to his or her peers. ProPublica has created a tool called Treatment Tracker that allows consumers to compare their doctors, physical therapists and other health providers to others based on newly released data on the services they provide in Medicare's Part B program.

The tool may give you, the patient, information to ask important questions about your care. Here's what to look for and ask:

• Does your doctor perform more services and order more tests per patient than others in his or her specialty and state? Along the same lines, is your doctor's cost per patient higher than peers? If your doctor is in the top 10 percent, you'll see a note in red. It may be worth asking questions to ensure you are not being overtreated. More health care does not always equate to better health care.

• Are the most common services and treatments chosen by your doctor similar to others in the same specialty and state? Some doctors may be relying on unconventional or even questionable therapies that their peers do not. You may want to look for large gaps between where a service ranks for your doctor and where it ranks among similar providers. You'll see an orange symbol in our app if one of a doctor's services has been performed by five or fewer providers in his/her specialty and state.

• Are there drawbacks to the tests your doctor orders? Radiation exposure carries risks, and screening tests may turn up false positives or abnormalities that may not actually be health problems, such as a precancerous node that won't develop into cancer. In addition, tests may add unnecessarily to your costs, via your co-pay, and to those of the government. It's worth asking whether medical tests are necessary, especially if you have recently had similar tests.

• If you need a procedure, say a knee replacement or cardiac stent, does your doctor have much experience performing it? While this data only includes Medicare patients, it's one indicator of how practiced a physician might be at performing a procedure. Studies show that doctors with more experience generally have better outcomes.

Your doctors may not know that they are practicing differently than their peers. If nothing else, your questions may prompt them to look at the data or discuss their approach to medicine. Additional research on reputable health websites such as mayoclinic.org may also help.

Other tools at ProPublica.org may allow you to learn even more about your provider.

• Does your physician accept payments from pharmaceutical companies for promotional work? Checking our Dollars for Docs app may provide the answer. If your doctor has a relationship with a company whose product he or she is prescribing, you may want to ask about whether that affects medication decisions.

• How do your doctor's drug prescribing patterns compare to peers? With our Prescriber Checkup tool, you can see if your doctor prescribes more narcotics, antipsychotics or risky drugs in Medicare's Part D program than colleagues, or whether he or she favors brand name drugs over generic medications.

• Does your health provider have discipline against his or her professional license? Each state has licensing boards that oversee health professionals and sanction providers for misconduct. Links to medical boards are available on our provider pages. If your provider has faced discipline, it's worth seeking out the details (sometimes they are online; sometimes you have to call or write the board) and determining if the provider is the right match for you.

A patient's guide to the Treatment Tracker 05/15/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2014 7:57am]
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