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It's Complicated: ProPublica Surgeon Scorecard Gives Patients Doc Data

ProPublica has developed a database of surgeons' complication rates for certain elective procedures.

For many Americans, choosing a surgeon can be a high-stakes guessing game — but a new online database could change that by giving medical consumers data about doctors' complication rates.

The non-profit news outlet ProPublica used five years of Medicare records for lower risk elective procedures — including knee replacements, neck fusions and gallbladder removals — to craft the unique "surgeon scorecard."

George Lynch, a New Yorker who could barely walk after complications from knee surgery, said he wishes he'd had access to such a resource when he went under the knife.

"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," he told NBC News.

The ProPublica analysis shows that the average complication rate was between 2 and 4 percent, but some doctors had complications in more than 1 in 10 surgeries.

Find a surgeon's complication rate with the ProPublica database

Some critics worry the database could encourage doctors to shun higher-risk patients or that the analysis doesn't go deep enough.

"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," said Dr. Joshua Jacobs of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

"I think you need to have a little more information than just this data to choose a surgeon."

Marshall Allen, a ProPublica reporter who worked on the project, said more information is better for patients.

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