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Hospital Ratings Fatigue Part II: Reporting on the Report Cards

As top ranking groups get grades, the nation’s foremost accrediting commission nearly doubles the number of hospitals named “top performers.” What’s it all mean?

When I wrote last week about how journalists should use caution when covering hospital rankings, ratings and report cards, I didn’t appreciate how good my timing was.

Days later, the hospital accrediting group The Joint Commission labeled 1,099 hospitals as “top performers” — close to double the number from the year before.

“These results are more than numbers,” the group’s president and CEO Mark Chassin said, according to a story by HealthLeaders Media.

"They mean better care for the millions of Americans who require surgery, or who are hospitalized with heart attack, heart failure, stroke, or pneumonia. They mean better care for children coping with asthma, better inpatient psychiatric treatment, increased rates of immunization, and better prevention of dangerous blood clots known as venous thromboembolism."

And then Monday, the Healthcare Association of New York State issued its own report card on hospital ratings, measuring their utility and finding many of them deficient. Among those that didn’t meet the grade were some of the most prominent ratings: U.S. News and World Reports, the Leapfrog Group, HealthGrades and Consumer Reports. Among those that did: The Joint Commission.

“We had been hearing more and more from members their general frustration of all the different report cards,” said Kathleen Ciccone, director of HANYS’ Quality Institute, according to a Kaiser Health News story. “It’s so time consuming for them to be able to respond to the reports, to be able to see what’s useful about them. They’re really looking for some guidance on how to use the information.”

The Kaiser story notes that, “By at least one criterion, the HANYS report on report card falls short of its own standards: HANYS did not give the ratings groups an opportunity to preview the report before publication.”

Longtime health reporter Trudy Lieberman wrote on her Center for Advancing Health blog that she remains skeptical the report cards amount to much:

The take-aways: people are not about to fish around for a hospital when they need a hospital procedure, especially one that is not elective, and they want to be near family and friends. Where does that leave hospital ratings? When it comes to usefulness, ratings are probably no more helpful than they were 20 years ago when marketplace consumerism attempted to gain a toehold in health care.

Lieberman wrote that the best advice she's heard about hospital care came from Don Berwick, founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and past administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: When you go to the hospital, take someone with you and get out quickly.

I continue to believe that reporters should tread with caution. As report cards proliferate, we may just throw up our arms and cry uncle.

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