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'Surgeon Scorecard' aims to help you find doctors with lowest complication rates

A new online database called the Surgeon Scorecard created by ProPublica rates doctors based on their complication rates.
/ Source: TODAY

Whether it's through word of mouth or searching online, finding the best surgeon can often be a glorified guessing game for many patients.

There has never been a way to see doctors' rates of complications from surgical procedures until now, thanks to the non-profit news organization ProPublica. It says it has created a first-of-its-kind online database to see doctors' complication rates. Called the Surgeon Scorecard, it uses five years of Medicare records on lower-risk procedures like knee replacements, gallbladder surgeries and neck fusions to come up with each surgeon's score.

Patients can type in a doctor's name to see how many complications he or she has had and compare them to other surgeons nearby.

"Even the doctors didn't know,'' ProPublica healthcare reporter Marshall Allen told Gabe Gutierrez on TODAY Monday. "What's been interesting is going around the country and talking to doctors about what we found and one of their first questions is, 'What is my complication rate?'"

Failing to choose the proper surgeon can have lasting consequences, which the Surgeon Scorecard aims to avoid. Just ask New York man George Lynch, who suffered complications from knee surgery that have left him barely able to walk.

"If there were more research available for me to sit down and say, 'Wow, the person who is going to do my surgery has the lowest batting average or the highest complication rate,' but that information wasn't available,'' Lynch said.

Critics of the database feel that the data doesn't go deep enough and that it may encourage some doctors to choose lower-risk patients to boost their scores.

"While this data can point to trends that are very helpful for further study, it's difficult to make conclusions, for example, if you're just a patient going on the website,'' Dr. Joshua Jacobs of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons told Gutierrez. "I think you need to have a little more information than just this data to choose a surgeon."

ProPublica is hoping to the Surgeon Scorecard can become an important part of researching which surgeon to choose, but it doesn't need to be the only factor.

"The numbers are part of the story,'' Allen said. "Really, this is a starting point for patients to talk to their docs, talk to their hospitals about these complications."

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter and Google+.