Medicare database could hold key to spending reductions, but privacy issues raise concerns

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Mining Medicare's database for information comparing individual doctors' spending practices could help significantly reduce healthcare spending, according to a recent report.

When it comes to Medicare spending, a big problem facing physicians is a lack of information, according to healthcare economist Arnold Milstein, who was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered news program Tuesday. If physicians could see how much other physicians were spending on treating the same procedures, they could make more informed decisions about their own treatment approaches, Milstein argues. There is, however, a dearth of comparative information for physicians, he says.

The Medicare database contains treatment and spending records for every Medicare recipient in the country. But while the database is used for a number of different types of research, there are some who say this particular idea would go too far and potentially violate both patient and physician privacy. Comparative spending analyses could reveal, for example, how much a physician earns, which opponents of Milstein's plan say it is an unacceptable privacy infringement, according to NPR.