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Medicare patients have new help in picking a doctor, the federal government announced on Feb. 21. Quality ratings for medical practices have been added to Medicare’s Physician Compare website.

medicare-pill“Patients and their families need facts to help them in making important decisions about health care, and choosing the right physician is one of the most important decisions they face,” says Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

That doesn’t mean you can look up every doctor, however, or check how they’re doing treating every ailment. For starters, the measures focus on diabetes and heart disease. And the website rates practices of 25 providers or more as “accountable care organizations,” not individual doctors. (Medicare plans to add ratings of individual providers next year.)

But it’s a good start, according to Cristina Boccuti, a senior associate on Medicare policy at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The information is part of a larger trend in health care emphasizing quality. Some doctors have expressed concern that ratings don’t give the whole story — a practice focused on patients with complicated medical problems, for example, might have lower scores because of that, Boccuti points out. But the ratings focus on health outcomes, which is important.

Some of the first quality measures include how well doctors control blood sugar levels and blood pressure in diabetics, and whether they are prescribing appropriate medications for heart patients.

“It helps highlight the outcomes a patient should want,” Boccuti says.

Boccuti adds that Medicare patients, in time, will also see ratings that cover waiting times and how well providers communicate with patients.

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