WASHINGTON — Picking a specialist for a delicate medical procedure like a heart bypass could get a lot easier in the not-too-distant future.

The government announced Monday that Medicare will finally allow its extensive claims database to be used by employers, insurance companies and consumer groups to produce report cards on local doctors — and improve current ratings of hospitals.

By analyzing masses of billing records, experts can glean such critical information as how often a doctor has performed a particular procedure and get a general sense of problems such as preventable complications.

Doctors will be identifiable through the Medicare files, but personal data on their patients will remain confidential. Compiled in an easily understood format and released to the public, medical report cards could become a powerful tool for promoting quality care.

“There is tremendous variation in how well doctors do, and most of us as patients don’t know that. We make our choices blind,” said David Lansky, president of the Pacific Business Group on Health. “This is the beginning of a process to give us the information to make informed decisions.”

His nonprofit represents 50 employers providing coverage for more than 3 million people.

Medicare acting administrator Marilyn Tavenner called the new policy “a giant step forward in making our health care system more transparent and promoting increased competition, accountability, quality and lower costs.”

But some consumer groups said Medicare is still putting limitations on their access.

Consumers will see the first performance reports by late 2012, said a Medicare spokesman.

With 47 million beneficiaries and virtually every doctor and hospital in the country participating, Medicare’s database is considered the mother lode of health care information.

Following appeals from law- makers of both parties, President Obama’s health care overhaul changed federal law to authorize release of the information.

Medicare followed through in regulations issued Monday.