According to USA Today, hospital death rates were unknown to the public until the end of August, when the newspaper posted on its Web site government estimates of heart attack, heart failure, and pneumonia death rates—standard measurements for hospital performance—for every U.S. hospital over the past two years.
“Now anyone with access to a computer can directly compare a local hospital with the one across town to see how it stacks up against the biggest medical institutions nationwide,” wrote Steve Sternberg and Anthony DeBarros in their USA Today story on the new application.
Available on Web
In concert with USA Today’s publication of the death rate portal, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) posted its new mortality estimates on a government Web site called Hospital Compare. CMS also made available several other statistics for judging hospital performance, including the percentage of a hospital’s patients that get what CMS considers appropriate care for a variety of illnesses and injuries, as well as measures of patient satisfaction.
Knowing a hospital’s death rates gives consumers more power to influence the quality of their medical care, said Lisa Iezzoni, associate director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Health Policy, according to the USA Today story.
Not Really a Breakthrough
Published information on hospital performance, including preventable death rates, is a key component of consumer-driven health care, but the information published by USA Today isn’t really new, said John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D., a physician and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and American Council on Science and Health.
“These reports on patient outcomes have been around on many items of interest for years,” said Dunn. “How could USA Today be so ignorant of the widespread use of patient outcome comparisons that goes back more than 10 years?”
Publication Has Downside
There are valid reasons to keep the figures private, Dunn says. “For a long time, [publicizing death rates] was considered in a negative light because it encouraged hospitals and physicians to avoid tough cases to keep their outcome results favorable,” he said.
“For example, in the early 1990s, St. Vincent’s Hospital, a fine, high-level institution in New York City, was the subject of a few negative reports, and as a result decided to refuse difficult heart cases because the higher risk and higher death rate involved in these cases were interpreted as failures by the hospital by the public and public officials,” Dunn noted.
“USA Today doesn’t have a clue,” Dunn concluded. “They are basically just repeating the public relations announcement of the government—the same government that gave us the post office.”
Mark Jackson ([email protected]) writes from North Carolina.
For more information …
“Hospital Death Rates Unveiled for First-Time Comparison,” USA Today, August 20, 2008: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-08-20-hospital-death-rates_N.htm
Hospital Compare: http://www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov/
U.S. Hospital Death Rates: http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/hospitals-graphic.htm