Zagat Survey, publisher of the eponymous restaurant guides, has just announced a partnership with WellPoint, the nation's largest health benefit company, to produce -- yes you guessed it -- a Zagat guide to physicians.

You won't find this new guide in bookstores. The database will only be available online, and listings will be limited to those physicians allied with the Blue Cross subsidiaries owned by Wellpoint. That's not exactly as limiting as it seems: Wellpoint companies collectively insure nearly one in nine Americans, with a meaningful percentage of all physicians participating in its plans. The purpose of this new collaboration is simple: to provide more information to members of Wellpoint insurance plans so that they can make more informed decisions when they need to select their physicians.

You know the current drill. When you join a new health plan, you are presented with a print or online directory. It provides names, addresses and not much else on thousands of physicians. Which one do you choose? Overwhelmed and under-informed, most patients choose a doctor who is nearby, hardly a rigorous selection process.

Very few doctors who participate in health plans do anything to market themselves, so there's long been a dearth of information, particularly comparable information. For years, information entrepreneurs have seen this as an area ripe with opportunity, but have been stymied by one major obstacle: while everyone seems to want this information, nobody wants to pay for it.

Wellpoint may finally be cracking this conundrum by giving its members the ability to exchange information among themselves in an organized manner. It's an ambitious user-generated content initiative, with the Zagat brand adding buzz and panache to what otherwise might be a humdrum undertaking. Further, Wellpoint and Zagat are cleverly focusing on the kind of information that patients want most: not mind numbing medical outcomes statistics, but ratings around trust, communication, availability and cost, all driven by the highly successful Zagat survey methodology.

This is clearly a gutsy brand extension for Zagat, which is moving outside its comfort zone into an area that's complex, emotionally-charged and political. Partnering with Wellpoint gives it immediate market credibility and access, along with some protective cover as it rolls out a database that is sure to draw criticism for being too fluffy, biased, incomplete and unfair. But if Zagat can get past this kind of criticism -- which has beset everyone else who has tried to play in this area -- it will be standing at the doorway of an enormous opportunity. And of course there would be delicious irony in having a restaurant guide providing the remedy for one of our national healthcare system's greatest afflictions.

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