Doctors rate doctors in HealthTap’s medical quality project

by Andrew Oram

This was originally published on O’Reilly Media’s Strata blog, November 1, 2012.

HealthTap, a network of physicians and patients, routinely breaks new ground and tries bold experiments in the area of generating trust. I remember how, in my first posting about the company, I questioned whether the company could sign up both patients and doctors and extract the information it planned to offer. Its current network of more than 16,000 physicians vindicates CEO Ron Gutman.

HealthTap has always included a modest "Agree" button that lets a doctor approve of a particular posting by another doctor, but now the company is delving much deeper into the mission of externalizing information that has long remained hidden. They are conducting a series of initiatives to rate doctors. The one announced today, the Top Doctors competition openly asks doctors to rate each other. Every specialist has strong opinions about who is best in his or her field, and is willing to direct patients to the most respected colleagues, but never have they been asked to publicize their opinions.

Gutman is confident that this gambit will pay off. Doctors are naturally competitive, he says, and will sign up to rate one another. He is asking for extremely fine-grained ratings: not just for "best eye surgeon," but for "best retinal surgeon." This kind of detail matches the requests made by anxious patients.

Patients will also be able to rate their physician’s bedside manner. Such ratings are known to be very subjective and poorly correlated with clinical results, so the physician and patient ratings will be presented separately on HealthTap.

The direct rating is by no means the only quality measure HealthTap has undertaken. First, they created a large listing of physicians and checked whether they had published medical papers in the PubMed database. Simply locating them in PubMed was a technical challenge, because according to Gutman, current physician identifiers are "fuzzy." HealthTap licensed numerous physician listings and combined the information about doctors to pinpoint who was in PubMed. The company then used the typical measures of citations and links to determine whom in the field was highly respected.

HealthTap is also engaging in another rating project among doctors, whose results it hopes to release soon.

Despite many quality databases maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services, and others, some aspects of medicine are so fiercely protected that you’d think the NSA was in charge. Prices for procedures and the results of failed pharmaceutical testing rank high among things that can’t be ranked, but many other areas also get stuck behind high walls. Developing rankings that are accurate, fair, and easy to use is a difficult job, and I applaud anyone like HealthTap that jumps into the breach.

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