The recent articles in the New York Times about the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) have once again raised important questions about the role of for-profit hospitals in the U.S. healthcare system. For-profits make up about 20% of all hospitals and many of them are part of large chains (such as HCA). Critics of for-profit hospitals have argued that these institutions sacrifice good patient care in their search for better financial returns. Supporters argue that there is little evidence that their behavior differs substantially from non-profit institutions or that their care is meaningfully worse.
To me, this is essentially an empirical question. Yet, I read the through the articles, I was struck by the dearth of data provided on the quality of care at these hospitals. Based on the comments that followed the stories, it was clear that many readers came away thinking that these hospitals had sacrificed quality in order to maximize profits. Here, I thought an ounce of evidence might be helpful.
There is no perfect way to measure the quality of a hospital. However, the science of quality measurement has made huge progress over the past decade. There is increasing consensus around a set of metrics, many of which are now publicly reported by the government and even are part of pay-for-performance schemes. While one can criticize every one of these metrics as imperfect, taken together, they paint a relatively good, broad picture of the quality of care in an institution. We focused on five metrics with widespread acceptance:
After years of breaking down, my sedan recently died. Finding myself in the market for a new car, I did what most Americans would do – went to the web. Reading reviews and checking rankings, it quickly became clear that each website emphasized something different: Some valued fuel-efficiency and reliability, while others made safety the primary concern. Others clearly put a premium on style and performance. It was enough to make my head spin, until I stopped to consider: What really mattered to me? I decided that safety and reliability were my primary concerns and how fun a car was to drive was an important, if somewhat distant, third consideration.
For years, many of us have complained about the lack of similarly accessible, reliable information about healthcare. These issues are particularly salient when we consider hospital care. Despite a long-standing belief that all hospitals are the same, the truth is startlingly different: where you go has a profound impact on whether you live or die, whether you are harmed or not. There is an urgent need for better information, especially as consumers spend more money out of pocket on healthcare. Until recently, this type of transparent, consumer-focused information simply didn’t exist.
Over the past couple of months, things have begun to change. Three major organizations recently released groundbreaking hospital rankings. The Leapfrog Group, a well-respected organization focused on promoting safer hospital care, assigned hospitals grades (“A” through “F”) based on how well it cared for patients without harming them*.