One of healthcare's dirty little secrets is that it's not yet possible to measure the quality of care most patients receive. This is despite the unprecedented amount of so-called quality information being gathered through report cards, accreditation surveys and the like.
The burgeoning frenzy to deliver a confusing bundle of healthcare information to consumers via the Internet is likely to make the situation worse -- at least in the short term.
Granted, most medical organizations have been attempting to track the way they deliver patient care for only a few years, and in some cases mere months. And as behavioral experts know, awareness must precede action as the first step on the road to change.
But it's time to put the pedal to the metal in the effort to end variations in care delivery and improve the overall quality of care being offered to patients, given growing consumer demand for quality healthcare information.
After all, Dartmouth Medical School researcher John Wennberg, M.D., has been tracking geographic variations in care delivery since the 1970s and published the first data on the topic in 1982. Despite all the attention such research has received, changes in care delivery patterns have been negligible.
Just looking at the data included in the 1999 Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care is a bit disheartening. The less seriously ill continue to be admitted more often in areas with more hospital beds, and the high supply of specialists continues to correlate to high rates of medical and surgical procedures.
But the past need not be a prologue to the future. Savvy medical leaders are moving to implement financial and organizational incentives that will help physicians adopt widely accepted best medical practices. Such efforts require a commitment of money and, in many cases, improved technology. But they also offer the promise of creating organizations that will attract consumers seeking high-quality medical care.