The erosion of public trust in the nation's healthcare system is threatening to weaken the political leverage of hospitals, according to a confidential American Hospital Association report.
"Hospitals are at risk of losing public support in maintaining their place at the table of healthcare decisionmaking," said the report, obtained by MODERN HEALTHCARE last week.
The conclusions in the 10-page report are based on consumer research by the AHA. The project included a series of 31 focus groups with more than 300 adults in 12 states from May through September of last year.
The Chicago-based hospital trade association published highlights of the report last month and sent the full report to chief executive officers of its hospital members in late December. It instructed CEOs not to disseminate the report publicly or to the media.
The full and frank report reveals that the public backlash against hospitals is largely due to the perception that hospitals and other segments of the healthcare industry are more interested in making money than caring for patients.
The timing of the report is noteworthy given the hospital industry's upcoming federal budget battles on Capitol Hill. The American Medical Association also must deal with the political ramifications of its recently disclosed figures showing that physician income hit an all-time high (See related story, p. 12).
The AHA, meanwhile, found that, based primarily on their personal experiences, focus group participants feel that hospitals, physicians and other providers are abandoning their roles as patient advocates.
In an interview last week, Richard Wade, the AHA's senior vice president for communications, said, "The fear is that healthcare is rapidly becoming a commodity, and the human dynamic is coming out of it. The danger is that hospitals will be forced to behave the way the public wants them to behave through more laws and regulations."
The practical problem created by this perception, the report noted, is the difficulty in winning back public support once it has soured.
"As (hospitals) lose the image of being `on the side' of the patient and making medical decisions based on what is best for the patient, they lose the public legitimacy to exercise the authority that their expertise otherwise would entitle them," the AHA report said.
Left unaddressed, the negative perceptions could not only hurt the political cachet of hospitals at both the grass-roots and national levels but also their merger and acquisition activity.
"The current wave of mergers and consolidations of providers and services is seen as motivated largely by profit and business objectives," the report said.
"If hospitals and health systems can't help communicate why what they're doing is in the best interest of the community, then we will have things dictated to us by state regulators," said Lee Zacharias, the AHA's director of field development.