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: