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Wanna Know How the Doc Did? Ask the Patient

JANUARY 13, 2006 -- Patients provide consistent and reliable information about the quality of medical care physicians give and how their offices operate, a new study has found.

In the statewide demonstration study of physicians in Massachusetts' five leading commercial health plans and Medicaid, researchers at Tufts–New England Medical Center and Massachusetts Health Quality Partners found reports by 45 patients of individual physicians are "highly consistent and reliable sources of data." Meanwhile, individual physicians vary substantially from one another on measures such as communication quality, accessibility, and coordination of care,

The report—described as the first large-scale study to examine the validity of patients' reports on the quality of their doctors' care—comes as lawmakers, patients, and health analysts are placing greater emphasis on the measuring and reporting of providers as a way to determine what constitutes quality medical care and how much to pay for it.

"These findings reveal that among a modest-size sample of a physician's patients, it is possible to obtain a snapshot of what it is like to be a patient of that physician that appears to hold true from patient to patient," the study's lead author, Dana Gelb Safran, said in a news release. "The study points to patients' reports as an effective tool that can be used more widely to improve quality of care."

The patient surveys were completed by phone and mail between May and August 2002, using a statewide sample of nearly 13,000 adult patients of 215 generalist physicians at 67 practices, with an average of 58 completed questionnaires per physician.

Patients critiqued their health care experiences on 11 measures reflecting both quality of interactions—such as how often the doctor explained things in a way that was easy to understand, or treated the patient with respect—as well as organizational features of care such as coordinating care with specialists.

The study, supported by The Commonwealth Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, was published in the January issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

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