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Why Is It So Hard to Know How Good a Doctor Is?

There are lots of tools to help us gauge the quality of nearly any product or service we wish to buy, from cars to computers to restaurants. Yet there's no easy way to assess the quality of the doctors who take care of what's most important to us -- our health. 

The Journal of Patient Safety reports that at least 200,000 people die each year from preventable medical errors, up from 1999 when a landmark report, "To Err Is Human," told Americans that more people die every year from medical errors -- 98,000 -- than from car accidents.  

Yet, more than a decade later, many hospitals still don’t track the complication rates of individual surgeons -- or if they do, few hospitals share information that could help consumers make an informed decision. 

Investigative journalists at Pro Publica set out to do what many hospitals are not: examine the data of nearly 17,000 surgeons nationwide to force improvements in the 11% of surgeons who account for about 25% of the complications. But their “surgeon scorecard” has its critics, who say the methodology is flawed, and the data not comprehensive enough to measure the true skill for any single doctor.

Hospitals have had a long time to work on this problem. At a time when data is abundant and the call for transparency is loud, are hospitals ready to open this conversation?


If you've been harmed by a medical error, you can access Marshall Allen's questionnaire here.

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John Dankosky is the host of Where We Live. Chion Wolf is the technical producer.

Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.
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