Consumer Reports Introduces Physician Performance Ratings

September 15, 2010
Terri Cullen

Consumer Reports magazine, reknowned for its ratings of everything from cars to electronics, has teamed with the Society of Thoracic Surgeons to rate heart-surgery groups based on their performance on bypasses.

Cars, refrigerators, big-screen TVs … and now, cardiac surgeons.

Consumer Reports magazine -- reknowned for its ratings of everything from durable household goods to cars and electronics -- has teamed with the Society of Thoracic Surgeons in Chicago to rate heart-surgery groups based on their performance on bypass surgeries. The publication compared surgical groups using a three-tier rating system that is based on national benchmarks for such factors as 30-day survival rates, use of prescribed medications and treatments, surgical technique and medical complications.

The nonprofit Society of Thoracic Surgeons represents about 5,400 surgeons, and its Adult Cardiac Surgery Database includes more than 4 million surgical records, which cover roughly 90 percent of the more than 1,000 surgical groups in the U.S. that perform cardiac surgery, according to Consumer Reports.

Physician groups that scored “above average” received three stars, “average” performers received two stars, and those deemed “below average” received one star. Consumer Reports notes, however, that because the average performance of surgical groups has improved substantially over the past two decades, “it is possible to get very good care even from many two-star practices.”

The data are currently only available online to Consumer Reports print magazine and online publication subscribers, but eventually the data will be accessible for free on the website of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

Dr. Fred H. Edwards, the chairman of quality and research for the society, and medical director for cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Florida in Jacksonville, told the New York Times that the surgeons’ society collaborated with Consumer Reports “because the readership of Consumer Reports is certainly a lot broader than any audience we could reach, and we thought there was real value in having a highly reputable independent organization report the results.”

He added, “As you might imagine, it was not an entirely easy sell to the profession.”

Indeed, the Consumer Reports rankings don’t include every physician group in the society’s database. Right now, only 221 groups from 42 states, including the District of Columbia, agreed to allowed gthe publication to publish their results, according to Consumer Reports. Fifty of those groups received three stars, 166 received two stars, and only five received one star, according to the consumer publication’s website. Consumer Reports cautioned consumers that if a physician group can't share that information, or won't, patients should consider looking for a different one.

The Consumer Reports ranking is one of a number of consumer-driven and insurance-industry initiatives that have been heralded by some consumer advocates as a means to provide more transparency for patients in order to make more informed healthcare decisions.

Physicians groups have argued that such rating schemes can be misleading, and even harmful, to patients and their doctors -- some have gone so far as to call it “economic profiling.” Last week, the California Medical Association filed a seven-count class action lawsuit against Blue Shield of California, claiming the insurer's "Blue Ribbon Recognition Program" “unfairly 'rates' the physician plaintiffs and members of the physician class through the use of an inherently flawed methodology." For example, the program doesn’t review medical charts to determine if proper care was given, doesn’t evaluate patient outcomes, uses only one year of data and limits its database to patients eligible for 16 procedures, according to the complaint.