Hospital executives say that a new online hospital ranking tool launched by Consumer Reports last week could increase public awareness of quality information.
Industry officials say the Web site, ConsumerReportsHealth.org, unveiled May 29 by the well-known Consumer Reports, a magazine published by Consumers Union, might widen people's use of hospital rankings, something the industry already has been encouraging through sources such as the CMS' Hospital Compare Web site.
The new hospital ranking is another chance for patients to use information to make better healthcare decisions, according to Donna Lawson, vice president of quality at the Baptist Health System, Birmingham, Ala. "It's always good to provide patients meaningful information," she said.
But evidence is scarce that consumers are paying much attention to the numerous comparisons already availablefrom public sources such as the CMS' Hospital Compare to private report cards by Health Gradesand the introduction of yet another source might not make much difference, others say. Consumer Reports has strong name recognition in a range of industries and may attract people to the new hospital information, said Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety at the American Hospital Association.
"Many of us are trying" to provide the perfect combination of relevant information, Foster said, adding, "I don't think any of us has hit the exact target yet."
Using data from the 2008 Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, Consumer Reports ranks 2,878 hospitals on how aggressively they treat nine chronic conditionsthe number of diagnostic tests, doctor and specialty visits, and days spent in the hospital a person can expect at a facility if they suffer from conditions such as heart failure or chronic kidney failure. The ranking is based on a scale from "conservative" to "aggressive," and patients can compare hospitals by state and region. The organization also released an analysis of that aggressive treatment, claiming too much treatment does not necessarily mean patients are receiving better care, an argument also made by Dartmouth Atlas researchers.
John Santa, a physician and director of the new Health Ratings Center for Consumer Reports, said that the organization was impressed with the Atlas project's intensity-of-care data, and believed its research was the right place to start for the new ranking.
The hospital rankings tool, available for free to anyone, marks a slight change in how the popular consumer goods watchdogknown more for its ratings of such things as cars and appliancesscores products and services. Unlike other industry goods, which receive weighted scores that are accompanied by symbols to show how high or low they scored, the amount of treatment hospitals provide are ranked, not rated. In other words, the use-of-treatment indicator is only one factor that could be integrated with several other factors to someday produce a hospital rating, Santa said.
And in its initial form, the rankings pertain only to a certain segment of patients. "This is relevant to consumers who have a life-threatening chronic illness," Santa said. The organization chose to start there because of studies showing that chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes are on the rise and consuming more healthcare dollars, he said.
The Consumer Reports tool is designed to help patients be more assertive in asking questions of providers and playing a larger role in their own care, he said. "We do not want to assert that an aggressive hospital is better or worse than a conservative hospital," he said. Instead, patients can see what amount of treatment facilities provide and make assessments as to how much care they'd like to receive. "We deserve to have the care we want," Santa said.
The subtleties among patients' needs present a challenge for any hospital trying to translate quality information into something consumers can use, said Baptist Health's Lawson. "There are a lot of little nuances you have to consider when comparing general information," she said. The health system follows the evidence-based practices recommended by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement for its quality indicators.
The key for the new Consumer Reports rankings is how patients will interpret what's provided, Lawson said. Individual patients might need or want more care options. "It really depends on what's going on with me," she said.
The ratings center is continuing to study different sources of health information and plans to add to its ranking tool in the future, said Santa, who added that the center is interested in working with federal groups such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, as well as private organizations such as the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, which have maintained credible and timely databases for a wide range of clinical indicators.
This story initially appeared in this week's edition of Modern Healthcare magazine.
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