FRIDAY, April 14, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- It's easy enough to select a doctor or hospital by ZIP code. That assures you'll get care convenient to your home or office. But how do you find out whether the provider you choose is reasonably priced and provides high-quality care?

More Americans will be wrestling with that question as they bear a greater portion of the cost of their own health care, many experts say. And, they suspect, one of the places people will turn for answers is the Internet.

The problem is that, at this point, very little exists in the way of good comparative data, according to Robert Krughoff, president of Consumers' Checkbook (www.checkbook.org), a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 with the help of funding from the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, that publishes market data on physicians, hospitals and health plans.

In fact, a recent survey found that Internet users are much more likely to surf the Web to research a car or computer than a doctor or hospital. Only 36 percent of those interviewed were even aware that they can get information online to compare prices and quality of doctors, according to survey sponsor UICI, a North Richland Hills, Texas-based insurer that offers consumer-directed health plans. Only 34 percent of those surveyed were aware they could get this information for hospitals.

By contrast, 56 percent who bought a car in the past five years and 44 percent who bought a computer used the Internet to help make those choices, the survey found.

"The information is vastly better on cars than it is on physicians," said Krughoff, whose service also provides information on buying and leasing cars.

Measuring physician quality is a particular challenge, he said, in part because the medical system does not have a good way to follow patient results over time. "So there's a tremendous gap in terms of following up with regard to outcomes," he noted.

But Krughoff said there are fledgling initiatives that show promise, including efforts by some health plans to identify doctors who comply with medical guidelines, for example.

Hospital quality, by comparison, is somewhat easier to measure. In April, a partnership involving hospitals, government agencies, quality experts, consumers and purchasers of care launched a Web site (www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov) that allows consumers to assess 4,200 hospitals based on measures of care for three common, serious conditions: heart attack, heart failure and pneumonia.

Want to find out which hospital in your area is best, say, for maternity care? HealthGrades (www.healthgrades.com), a publicly traded company that rates hospitals, physicians and nursing homes, offers a free, searchable database that allows consumers to see how hospitals stack up.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations is another source of information. It offers a search engine (www.jcaho.org/quality+check/) that consumers can use to compare hospitals on quality and safety measures. Beginning in 2004, most accredited hospitals began reporting on three of four areas targeted for quality improvement, including heart attack, heart failure, pneumonia, and pregnancy and related conditions. Hospitals also report their progress on implementing certain measures aimed at reducing medical errors.

Over time, the commission hopes to add new measures.

"Consumers really want more procedure-specific information," said Evelyn Lockett Woods, executive vice president for support operations and chief information officer at the Joint Commission.

With some rare exceptions, data comparing the prices that doctors and hospitals charge for various procedures is still hard to come by. But experts say that will change, too, as consumer demand boosts pressure for greater price transparency in health care.

Until cost and quality data is pervasive on the Internet, John Cullinan, the Joint Commission's director of e-health information products, recommends that people supplement their research the old-fashioned way: By getting recommendations and advice from their doctors, family and neighbors.

"Our general philosophy is, really, do your homework," he said.

More information

For more tips on choosing a quality health provider, check out this guide from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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