Who are the doctors most trusted by doctors? Big data can tell you

ZocDocHealthgradesVitalsYelp and other sites can tell you what patients think of their doctors. But finding out in any aggregate way what doctors think of their peers has been much harder, if not near impossible, for patients — up until now.

By accessing information in government databases through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, healthcare innovators are now able to share connections between doctors that are based on millions of physician referrals — a valuable indicator of who doctors hold in esteem.

Last month, Fred Trotter, a self-identified “hacktivist,” revealed that he had obtained a dataset of Medicare physician referrals through a FOIA request and was making the initial data available to those who supported a Medstartr crowdfunding campaign meant to build out his “DocGraph” and make it freely available. This week, he announced that he not only blew past his $15,000 funding goal, but was launching a second campaign to integrate his current data with an additional dataset.

HealthTap, a Palo Alto-based startup that connects patients with an online network of 17,000 doctors, also this week launched a new feature based partly on Trotter’s data. Called “DOConnect,” it combines Trotter’s Medicare data with physician data from its own site and other sources to give patients a new window into their doctors’ networks.

“This isn’t just friendships and business connections. This is who doctors trust,” said HealthTap co-founder and CEO Ron Gutman. “If you could know who your doctor’s doctor is, if you knew who they would choose, this lets you see that for the first time.”

A HealthTap visualization of the connections between physicians on its site.

The new tool, which reflects 25 million doctor referral connections, enables patients to see how many doctors are linked to a particular doctor, as well as their locations. As patients search for new physicians and specialists, being able to see who their current doctors are linked with could help them decide who to visit.  It also gives doctors an opportunity to build online networks that reflect their offline networks, Gutman said. In a post about his “DocGraph” project, Trotter said that his data wasn’t strictly a “referral” data set because, in some cases, doctors might be linked through a patient they both happened to see at the same time, not through an active referral. But Gutman emphasized that HealthTap’s DOConnect considered more than Medicare referrals in mapping connections between doctors.

In releasing the dataset, Trotter said his main goal was to create doctor-rating algorithms that “patients find useful and doctors find fair.” But he also hoped that academics, health policy wonks, entrepreneurs and others would use it to bring more transparency to health care overall.

Todd Park, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, has frequently talked up the value of “setting data free” and has backed hackathons, “datapaloozas” and other open data initiatives to highlight the need for innovators to use government data for the public good — this is a great example of that vision and, hopefully, points to more similar projects in the future.

“Our goal is to empower the patient, make the system transparent and accountable, and release this data to the people who can use it to revitalize our health system,” Trotter wrote.