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Minor League Report Cards

I was pleased to see the Chicago Tribune carry an op-ed piece this week by my friend and colleague Michael Millenson. The gist of the piece was that information about hospital quality is readily available online and we should use that information when choosing a hospital. Michael is right — there is no shortage of places to turn to get information about hospital quality. But I think he waxes too enthusiastic.

For one thing, it is not clear whether the widespread availability of quality information is a boon or a problem. Consider Medicare’s Hospital Compare website. Look up quality information for pneumonia and you are overwhelmed with nearly 20 different measures on four different web pages. I couldn’t possibly make sense of all this information even if I used sophisticated computer software; how could the average person sort through it all? One quality measure seems to stand out – mortality. But I wonder if this should be a major concern for pneumonia patients. Are we talking about 5 percent mortality rates, or 0.05 percent? I don’t know and Medicare won’t tell me.

HealthGrades.com is much simpler – it just reports mortality. The widely respected Leapfrog Group reports mortality for pneumonia and also reports another 8 general hospital quality measures, some of which are derived from even more measures.

When reading these report cards I find that my local hospital in Highland Park scores very well on mortality in the HealthGrades and Leapfrog reports but I can’t find it anywhere at the Medicare website. And I wonder if the low mortality rate is due to the hospital or due to the demographics of the patients. Michael Millenson pointed out that these report cards are risk adjusted, but he failed to mention that the available risk are pretty lousy – mostly controls for age, sex, and a few comorbidities. (Much better risk adjustment is possible but requires data not available to Medicare, HealthGrades, or Leapfrog.) Hospitals that get poor quality scores often report that their patients are sicker than the risk adjusters give them credit for. They might be right. Hospitals that get good scores never claim that their patients are healthier. Maybe they are hiding something.Continue reading…