Jul 8, 2012

Consumer Reports gets into the hospital safety rating business

If you pick up the August 2012 issue of Consumer Reports you might get to check out just how safe your local hospital is. The magazine has published safety scores for 1159 hospitals in 44 states based on rates of infections, readmissions, communication with patients, CT scanning, complications, and mortality.

Hospitals were scored on a 100-point scale. More than half of hospitals received an overall safety score below 50%. All hospitals had quite a way to go to make their care stellar. The best performing hospital, Billings Clinic in Montana, received 72 points. The worst performing hospital, Sacred Heart in Chicago, received 16 points. Most hospitals fared badly due to two systemic issues - those related to readmissions and communication.

There are some obvious issues with rating hospitals. One source of information before the Consumer Reports rating was The Leapfrog Group's controversial scoring system. This system grades hospital safety using a letter grades from A through F, much like a report card. Comparing Leapfrog and Consumer Reports scores can result in sometimes significantly different ratings. For example, Massachusetts General Hospital received an A from Leapfrog, but earned a score of 45 from Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports advises its readers that to get a complete picture, they should use their ratings along with others, such as Hospital Compare and those published by Leapfrog.

Consumers also need to take ratings, grades and scores at face value, keeping in mind the context these hospitals operate within. For example, many highly-regarded hospitals scored low in the area of safety: Mass General (score 45), Ronald Reagan UCLA (score 43), Cleveland Clinic (score 39), Mount Sinai (score 30).

But these hospitals look after a large number of patients with limited ability to receive follow-up care - the poor, the uninsured, those suffering from substance abuse or mental illness - increasing their hospital's readmission rates. Some of these hospitals also tend to take care of more non-English speaking patients which might affect their scores on communication. Consumer Reports ratings currently include only 18% of hospitals in the US, since such data aren't publicly reported fully or consistently by all hospitals.

In the end, transparency is what it's all about.

If I cross-check Yelp and the Davis Wiki before eating out at a restaurant, I suppose it is not such a bad thing to have more than one source available when checking out my medical care.

- Ulfat Shaikh

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