Consumer Reports magazine — long seen as an authority on the performance of automobiles, appliances, and air conditioners — is now rating a service commonly used but difficult to measure: your primary care doctor.
The July issue, on stands Thursday, includes a special insert scoring 487 Massachusetts adult and pediatric practices on how well doctors communicate with patients and specialists, whether the staff is courteous, and other measures meant to judge patients’ experience.
The ratings are a collaboration between the magazine and Massachusetts Health Quality Partners, a coalition of insurers and other health care organizations in the state. The group has been surveying people about their experiences with doctors every two years since 2005 and publishing the data on its website. But past years’ data has gotten little traffic, said executive director Barbra Rabson.
Rating doctors across the country has posed a particular challenge for the magazine, which has about 120,000 subscribers in Massachusetts, said Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.
“There’s 500 models of cars,” Santa said. “There’s 5,000 hospitals. We’re now rating around 3,500 hospitals. But there’s 500,000 full-time doctors. And doing the type of job that Consumer Reports standards suggests is daunting when you look at those kinds of numbers.”
Rabson said she is hoping patients will use the data, which also will be published on her organization’s website as it appears in the magazine, to find a doctor or to assess their current care.
“It is a learning tool,” she said. “It’s this education, to say, ‘This is what you should expect.’ ”
The report also will add transparency to health care in the state and drive doctors to improve, said Eric Schultz, chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, a member of Health Quality Partners. That is important, he said, as the state pushes for more physicians to be paid for performing well, by keeping patients healthy, rather than for how many tests or treatments they perform.
The data include responses from 47,565 adults with commercial health insurance surveyed in April and May 2011 about their own care and 16,530 surveyed about their child’s care. Only practices with three or more doctors and for which the organization received at least 50 responses were included, Rabson said.
The practices were given a score of 1 through 4 for each of five measures. Also included is the percent of respondents who would recommend the practice to others. On average, the doctors’ offices showed statistically significant improvement in nearly all measures since the 2009 survey, Rabson said.
While some practices received 4’s across the board, the results show significant variation even within organizations. Some practices affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, for example, received 4’s while one, at 294 Washington St. in Boston, received mostly 1’s. John Christoforo, chief executive of the Affiliated Physician’s Group, which oversees that practice, said he became aware of problems at that site about a year ago and made changes.
“These results do not reflect the current situation,” he said.
Several community health centers, which serve large numbers of patients on Medicaid and whose primary language is not English, were among the poorer performing practices, according to the survey. But leaders of some centers said the survey, which is only given to people with private insurance and is delivered in English, does not accurately represent their practices.
Dr. Ashish Jha, associate professor of health policy at Harvard School of Public Health, said the data is somewhat limited. It does not account for economic differences between patient populations and it does not include more objective clinical data. But, he said, “it’s clearly a step forward” in providing people with more information about physicians.
Santa said this is a start for Consumer Reports. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the magazine also will publish two more reports on local physician practices elsewhere in the country.
In August, it will score doctors in Minnesota based on clinical data, such as how well they manage diabetes care. Next year it is slated to carry an insert in Wisconsin focused on preventive care, Santa said.
Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.