This week's release by the federal government of a massive national database provides patients with more information than they have ever had about their doctors.
The database provided some startling revelations, specifically that a small percentage of the country's physicians collected billions of dollars from Medicare in 2012. In fact, about 2 percent of doctors collected about a quarter of the $77 billion in payments in 2012. That includes a West Palm Beach, Fla. opthamologist who topped the list, bringing in more than $26 million to treat fewer than 900 patients. As several media outlets have pointed out, that is 61 times the average Medicare payout of $430,000 for an opthalmologist.
The data release will likely lead to several fraud investigations -- as it should. But it would be wrong to assume that all doctors who received sizable payments from Medicare abused the system.
Taken out of context, data can be misleading. So consumers need to be aware of what's missing and how to interpret the new data. It's important to take into account that doctors who practice in areas like Hilton Head, where there is a concentration of seniors, will likely have higher Medicare collections than those practicing in "younger" areas. Specialists must often prescribe pricey prescriptions, meaning their Medicare collections are likely to be higher than many general practitioners. And as several Beaufort County physicians and state health care providers told The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette, the amount of money they receive from Medicare does not reflect their take-home pay. They must pay their staffs and pay their overhead out of the money.
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"If what you're seeing reflected my take-home pay, I would have retired 10 years ago," teased John Brittis, a Bluffton-based rheumatologist who was paid about $1.5 million from Medicare in 2012.
In fact, the American Medical Association was so concerned that citizens would misinterpret the data, it fought its release. In a statement, the AMA warned that "releasing the data without context will likely lead to inaccuracies, misinterpretations, false conclusions and other unintended consequences."
We disagree. We believe it's best to give citizens the data and let them consider it, discuss it and listen to those who offer context.
The data also serves as an important check on Medicare itself, a federal health care system that spends more than $500 billion a year. It currently faces an uncertain future as costs grow and the population ages.
If Americans want the system to survive, it must be efficient. The data provides leads on where the system is not controlling its costs. We suspect it won't take long for advocacy groups, journalists and politicians to pinpoint inefficiencies and waste and suggest solutions.
Still, we realize that the database offers just a small glimpse into the complex and often-shrouded world of medicine. More health care information is needed to give patients tools -- other than a recommendation from their neighbor -- on which doctors and hospitals can best meet their health care needs.
We encourage residents to take advantage of other databases that they may not know about including The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' website, hospitalcompare.hhs.gov, to view information about hospitals including readmission rates, surgical complications and health-care related infection rates. And go to medicare.gov/physiciancompare to review a limited amount of information about a select number of doctors. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative reporting news organization, offers several databases where patients can learn more about who is paying their doctors, at its website, propublica.org.
More information should be coming down the pike in September when the federal government is scheduled to release data on all research payments and personal payments made to doctors from pharmaceutical and medical device companies. The data may reveal that some doctors may have financial motivation to recommend a certain drug.
Increasingly, we have data to help guide our health care choices. It's up to us to put into context and make better health care decisions for ourselves and our country.