Even though the American public says quality of care is its No. 1 concern, people aren't making good use of the quality data collected by the healthcare industry.
In fact, they are hardly aware of it at all, a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the federal Agency for Health Care Policy and Research has found.
At briefings in New York and Washington last week, the two groups posed the question: "Are patients ready to be healthcare consumers?"
"No, not really" was the implicit answer. The survey finds that Americans would rather trust the recommendations of family and friends when choosing a doctor or hospital than measurements devised by healthcare experts.
The public places much more credence in word-of-mouth than in information from employers, who are regarded by 58% of respondents as more concerned about "saving money on health benefits."
According to Patricia Drury, director of quality measurement and consumer information for the Buyers Health Care Action Group, a coalition of Minneapolis employers, it is essential that the group disseminating the information be seen as independent by consumers.
"Consumers don't trust anybody with a stake in what they decide," Drury said.
The BHCAG, which changed its name from the Business Health Care Action Group, has created a variety of health systems, each with its own discrete group of physicians. Employees of the member companies choose from among the plans and BHCAG collects and provides quality information.
The public is lukewarm to independent ratings of quality, but that may be due to lack of familiarity with them. Only 39% have seen quality comparisons within the past year. Among those people who have, few use that information in making real decisions about a health plan, doctor or hospital.
Those who are aware of quality ratings and have seen them wouldn't use them in preference to personal experience or the word of family and friends.
"For all the talk about quality indicators in healthcare, it is important to recognize that the movement is still in its infancy," said Mark D. Smith, M.D., of the Kaiser foundation. "It's encouraging that so many people say they would find quality comparisons useful, but not surprising that relatively few have as yet used them."
The survey indicates people are more comfortable using quality measures that emphasize patient experiences and satisfaction, such items as how many doctors have had a complaint filed against them, the percent of plan members who change plans because they're dissatisfied, how patients rate their plan's doctors, and how many enrollees get preventive screenings.
Drury agreed that in BHCAG's experience, consumers place a higher emphasis on the interpersonal skills of physicians than on clinical quality data.
"People care about caring," Drury said.
By a wide margin (52%) respondents also think the government should ensure minimum standards and make sure quality information is available. Another 24% just want government to make quality information available, and an additional 12% say the only role for government should be to monitor for a minimum standard of quality of care.
The telephone survey of 2,006 adults was conducted between July 26 and Sept. 5. The margin of error is plus or minus 3%.