TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ The American Medical Association will soon begin evaluating the nation's doctors for a ``seal of approval,'' hoping to boost the quality of health care and consumer confidence and ease the costs of hospitals and insurance companies.

Critics say the professional physicians' group cannot be objective in evaluating doctors. But insurance and hospital officials said AMA accreditation could eliminate the overlapping and expensive reviews they now perform on each doctor treating their patients.

The American Medical Accreditation Program was scheduled to be unveiled today in New Jersey, the first state to participate. It will be expanded over the next two years, with Alabama, Florida, Massachusetts and Wisconsin up next.

``I think it's responsive to patient desires and it's something doctors want,'' said Dr. Joseph Sokolowski Jr., who heads the Medical Society of New Jersey subsidiary handling the accreditation work in the state.

Physicians generally belong to six to 12 insurance plans. Repeated evaluations take up staff time and paperwork costs alone can run $1,600 annually. Insurance companies and hospitals, to whom AMA will sell its evaluations, spend $250 credentialing each of their physicians every two years.

``It's just an incredible waste of dollars ... which, of course, affects premiums,'' said Dr. Dan Dragalin, president of NYLCare of New Jersey, the first health plan to sign up.

The program is designed to be voluntary for the nation's 650,000 doctors, about 40 percent of whom belong to the AMA. Dragalin said NYLCare will require the accreditation for its 7,000 network physicians in New Jersey.

What the program won't do is offer consumers the same detailed information the hospitals and insurers will get, at least for now. Dr. Randolph Smoak Jr., chairman of the accreditation program's governing body, said the evaluations might be released eventually.

While the AMA said accreditation will measure clinical performance, patient care and satisfaction, those standards won't be in place for a few years.

The first phase of the program, to begin next month, involves the AMA verifying doctors have proper credentials, follow ethical standards and properly run their offices. Pilot programs evaluating how well doctors handle two conditions _ diabetes and depression _ could begin next year.

Smoak said the program will give a more complete picture of doctors than government-run databases that overemphasize malpractice history and disciplinary action. Those factors will be included in the AMA evaluation, but accreditation won't be withheld from doctors based only on poor performance or patient results.

Critics questioned the reliability of the program.

``Self-accreditation by an industry is doomed to fail and doomed to mislead people,'' said Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. ``This will give people a false sense of security about doctors who may have very bad records but are able to pass the AMA inspection.''

Another advocacy group, the People's Medical Society of Allentown, Pa., prefers having government as the watchdog and predicted ``problem doctors'' won't participate.

``This whole move by the AMA is to avoid having the states looking over doctors' shoulders,'' said Charles Inlander, president of the nonprofit group. ``State medical societies are notorious for knowing about bad doctors and doing very little to get those bad doctors out of business.''

However, Dragalin said physicians will have to submit to the accreditation or face expulsion from health plans.

``Anybody who says that this is the fox guarding the hen house obviously doesn't understand the accreditation process,'' he said.