Consumers have access to more medical data than ever before, but the value of the information to patients remains in doubt. The classic example is HCFA's mortality report, which detailed hospital-specific patient death rates from 1986 to 1992. Despite major media attention when the report was released each year, a study in the summer issue of Inquiry, a quarterly Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association journal, found HCFA was justified in eliminating the report, not because it was used by patients to select hospitals, but because it was not.
Defining and measuring quality in healthcare remains an elusive goal, with much of the current debate centering on managed-care report cards and HMO enrollee-satisfaction scores. To date, most of these efforts have been crude and of questionable validity.
As the Inquiry researchers point out, information given to patients has a better chance of sinking in if the message is clear and simple. But providers and managed-care plans are better off developing meaningful, sophisticated information for employer coalitions and benefits managers who have the expertise and economic incentive to put the data into perspective.