Health Break | Published July 18, 2005 | Written by Sara Gonzalez

Researching Quality Healthcare

Do you spend thousands of dollars on a car, house, fill-in-the-blank without making sure it meets your standards? No. You probably do a little research before making such big investments. What about your healthcare? High quality healthcare is one of the most important investments you make. As a consumer of healthcare, you choose your provider, so it is important to know the quality of healthcare provided in your area. Comparing several aspects of healthcare quality is becoming as easy as comparing vacation packages on the Expedia Web site. Pick a healthcare location on the Internet; click a few quality indicators, hit “submit” and the reports will appear. Public reports on hospital quality indicators are increasing and the following are just a few examples: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) CMS measures quality by how often hospitals provide the care proven to have the best results. CMS lets you choose multiple hospitals and indicators to compare at the same time. The report charts how often the organization(s) you selected provide the country and/or state. The report also includes the scores of the top-ranking hospitals in the country. Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) PHC4 tracks data for 49 treatment categories and publishes the results quarterly. The report rates the quality indicators as higher, lower, or no different than expected. Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) JCAHO sets standards focused on improving the quality and safety of care provided by healthcare organizations. JCAHO grants accreditation to the organizations that meet its standards and quality expectations. Quality Check lets you search for JCAHO-accredited organizations and view their quality information. The report uses checks, pluses and minuses to rate how the organization follows JCAHO National Patient Safety Goals and National Quality Improvement Goals (NQI). The NQI measure the quality of care (for hospitals only) in specific treatment areas that JCAHO feels are key indicators of quality.

“Buyer” Beware Hospital performance reports are only a small part in making healthcare decisions. The reports do not give the whole picture on the quality of healthcare. In many cases, hospitals are compared based on size. Imagine two hospitals of the same size; one hospital treats mostly mothers and newborns and the other treats an older, chronically ill population. If you compared these two hospitals you might get very misleading scores because they treat such different patients. Make sure you do not jump to any conclusions from the performance reports without discussing it with a healthcare professional first. When reading quality reports, make sure they come from reliable sources that:

  • Clearly explain the purpose for creating the report
  • Describe what the report is comparing (i.e. hospitals, doctors, or health plans)
  • State where the data came from
  • Account for risk factors
Now what?
  • Talk to your family physician. Ask what the information in a quality report means and how to use it in making your healthcare decisions.
  • Talk to your local hospital staff. Find out what steps they are taking to provide high quality care.
  • Keep in mind that while these reports are very useful they do not provide a complete representation of an organization. The quality indicators measured in the different reports cannot accurately describe the overall quality of an organization.
  • Be an active partner in your healthcare. Know what medications you take and why, see your healthcare provider for check-ups and health screenings as recommended, be sure your immunizations are up to date, and balance diet and exercise to maintain your health.
Sara Gonzalez is a Health Policy and Administration major at Penn State University, and she is serving an internship with Gail A. Miller, RN, MS, in the Performance Improvement and Education Department at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

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