How Good Is U.S. Health Care? It Depends on the Yardstick

Measured by results — preventable deaths and injuries due to malpractice, medical errors, preventable infections, misdiagnosis and other events that shouldn’t happen — American health care has a lot of problems. Millions of patients are injured every year, and upwards of 200,000 patients die annually from preventable errors and hospital-acquired infections. The United States also lags far behind other developed countries in basic health outcome measures like life expectancy and infant death rates.

But when U.S. hospitals measure themselves with a different yardstick — the “process” measures of how often certain important things get done for commonly treated diseases — the results are astoundingly good. An annual report from the Joint Commission, the agency that inspects and accredits hospitals, finds steady improvement in the “process” quality measures that it looks at — with most hospitals now performing in the 99% range on things like how often heart attack patients get standard treatments in the ER like aspirin and beta-blocker drugs.

The Joint Commission now measures 31 quality indicators. They cover the most common hospitalizable conditions: heart attack, heart failure (when the pump isn’t pumping effectively), pneumonia, surgical care, and children’s asthma. You can go to this website to look up information about a particular hospital.

The problems with the report are:

* Data is reported voluntarily by the hospitals, with no independent audit from anyone other than the Joint Commission. The Joint Commission says it’s independent from the hospital industry but is often seen by critics as a cheerleader.

* Outcome measures — deaths and injuries — are not included in the report. Even infection rates, which could have required reports if Congress ever passes health care reform, are not yet reported.

Consumers Union has a Safe Patients Project. CU says it’s high time for the U.S. health care industry to be required to report its results. Patient advocates like me agree wholeheartedly.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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