LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

When you are choosing a doctor, it can be hard to tell who is good and not so good. Economists call this an information problem, and say it's one reason the health-care system doesn't work as well as it could. A new Web site is trying to help with that.

NPR's David Kestenbaum, with our Planet Money team, reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The new Web site was put together by a non-profit group called Consumers' Checkbook. Robert Krughoff founded it in 1974.

Mr. ROBERT KRUGHOFF (Founder, Consumers' Checkbook): Well, I started Checkbook because I was driving away from an auto repair shop one time, and in fact it was the third time I had been there for the same repair. And I was about a quarter of a mile away, and I realized that I would be going back for a fourth time. So I thought, well, it would be good if there was some way to find out which are the good auto repair shops.

KESTENBAUM: Consumers' Checkbook rates auto mechanics, plumbers, hospitals - but now, a touchier area: doctors. He wanted to do it right.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: There are a lot of surveys out there, and if you go on the Internet, there are all kinds of places where you can go and you can find ratings of doctors. And those ratings of doctors are often based on two patients or five patients. And sometimes, they may not even be the doctors' patients. Could be the doctor or the doctor's staff doing the ratings. It could be some enemy of the doctor. You can't tell those things. We wanted to do a truly reliable survey that was free of any kind of bias.

KESTENBAUM: Several large insurance companies agreed to provide the names of patients and doctors. And the surveys got mailed out - thousands of them -asking questions like, does your doctor listen well? Does your doctor explain things clearly?

Late last month, Checkbook launched a pilot version of the Web site with results for the Denver, Memphis and Kansas City areas. Krughoff pulls up Kansas City and the ratings for 677 doctors.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: So, you can sort by overall rating. And…

KESTENBAUM: Who's on the top of the list there?

Mr. KRUGHOFF: For instance, this doctor, David Graham, has a 96 overall rating. And it says here that that is statistically, significantly better than the average doctor in the community. Actually, it's way statistically significantly better.

KESTENBAUM: You had a hundred people respond.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: That particular doctor was rated by a hundred people in a confidential survey, where we know those people saw that doctor. That doctor was rated by a hundred people.

KESTENBAUM: But doing this, you realize the Web site opens up a whole can of worms. Because any list that has a top also has a bottom.

Mr. KRUGHOFF: Well, I can re-sort, so now we're looking from the bottom up and there's a doctor…

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: It's awkward. Krughoff didn't want to read the doctor's name on the air.

You know I'm going to call the doctor at the bottom of the list, right?

Mr. KRUGHOFF: Knock yourself out.

KESTENBAUM: It'll be interesting to hear what he has to say, right?

Mr. KRUGHOFF: I think it would, I think it would.

KESTENBAUM: Like many things in health care, doctor quality is very hard to gauge. Patient surveys may tell you a doctor is a great listener, but he or she could still be a lousy doctor.

I called the bottom five doctors on the list. The lowest rated did not call back. A check with the Kansas licensing board shows that in 1996, he had been disciplined for sexual misconduct and distributing controlled substances on a, quote, gratuitous basis.

One doctor did call back though — Mitzi Groves. She says it looks like her survey results were skewed by one patient who filled out the survey.

Dr. MITZI GROVES: There was one person that's just zeroes all the way across.

KESTENBAUM: Oh really, it was zeroes?

Dr. GROVES: Whatever the lowest you could give, yeah. They made no comments, so I could even try to - think back about what would have happened here.

KESTENBAUM: Groves sees herself as a good listener who cares about her patients. She says surveys like this can be useful for figuring out what you're doing right and what you could do better.

Dr. GROVES: Well, I think when this survey was done, we were in the middle of flu season. And so I was trying to see a lot of people, and I didn't have enough time to really just - I don't - they probably didn't get the - well, you can tell now; I'm stumbling. They probably just felt like I was being rushed, and I wasn't sitting down and talking to them, like they wanted to.

KESTENBAUM: The flu season is a pretty difficult time. She's trying to figure out what's best for everyone's health overall. And that's something survey doesn't really measure.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: When it comes to rating the economy, our Planet Money blog is just what the doctor ordered, and you'll find it when you check headlines at the new NPR.org.

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