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Think twice before using certain data to compare hospitals

One of the biggest healthcare trends in recent decades has involved mass quantification, both for individual patients and for healthcare systems as a whole. Individuals now have the tools to easily quantify how much sleep they get each night, how far they walk in a given day and how many calories they eat.

Similarly, many hospitals are working to collect and analyze more data on everything from surgical errors to patient outcomes to infection rates. The data will hopefully allow patients to be true healthcare “consumers” and make informed care choices based on hospital performance data. Unfortunately, the conclusions we can reasonably draw from studying this data are only as accurate as the data itself and the manner in which it was collected and analyzed.

For example, the American College of Surgeons (ACS) has been touting the merits of a program called the National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (NSQIP). The ACS has said that the NSQIP could help individual hospitals save millions of dollars, prevent as many as 500 complications and save as many as 36 lives annually.

This all sounds great, but not everyone is convinced that the NSQIP is an accurate way to measure hospital performance. A recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association takes issue with the outcomes data in the NSQIP registry.

The study’s authors argue that the registry data may be unreliable. If that’s the case, it “can mask both poor and outstanding performance relative to benchmarks.” In short, the data could cause well-performing institutions to be labeled as poor performers and cause poorly performing institutions to appear to be doing better than they actually are.

Many Americans want to be able to compare hospitals in order to make informed decisions about their own health care. But if the information they access in order to make their decisions is unreliable because of bad data or poor data collection methods, it will be simply impossible to make truly informed comparisons.

Source: Modern Healthcare, “Report says surgical-outcomes data unreliable for comparing hospitals,” Andis Robeznieks, March 12, 2014

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