The Power of a Summary

Hospitals generate reams of patient safety-related data.  But that alone doesn’t make them accountable.

There is power in that data– the power to arm patients and purchasers with the information they need to demand better.  But in the unorganized, unsummarized aggregate, the data are not so powerful. Not to patients anyway.  Obviously, individual patients don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to decipher, organize, summarize and promote the hospital data on their own.  Therefore,  the hospitals’ data are effectively invisible to them.

The hospital data only realizes its potential power in the marketplace when boiled down into something that can be understood by patients at-a-glance, because a glance is all that most of us are willing to give the subject.  Only when boiled down will the hospital data be accessible enough to drive purchasing decisions.

And that is what a national patient safety group called Leapfrog did this week when it summarized hospitals’ patient safety data into school-like grades.  Casting judgements about hospitals is perilous business, because hospitals are fiercely defensive institutions that understandably prefer to promote their miracles over their mistakes.  Though Minnesota hospital leaders were very courageous a few years back to begin publicly disclosing their medical errors, hospital advocates in Minnesota pooh-poohed Report Card Day:

“It’s really a repackaging of what’s publicly available,” (Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) data expert Mark) Sonneborn said.

I really should have tried that one when I was a lad.  “Chill mom, that “D” in Social Studies is actually just a repackaging of information that has been available to you all semester.”

Yes, the data behind the grades is available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  So, if I understood which measures were most meaningful, and I don’t, it would have been technically possible for me to construct the spreadsheet that the Leapfroggers did, and make some kind of a comparison on my own.

But the practical reality is that I never did, and never would.  Life is just too busy to summarize all the data impacting my life.  And even if I was geeky enough to do my own little patient safety data research project, the effort would only benefit me, and not the rest of the country.

MHA is correct that Leapfrog’s methodology is just “repackaging.” But the grades will drive quality improvements much faster than the status quo way of managing the data.  Because whether a hospital got an “A” or a “F” grade, the minute hospital leaders know that easily understood grades are going to be regularly appearing in the hometown news media and competitors’ marketing materials is the moment they start investing more effort, thought and resources into patient safety improvements.    With the advent of publicized grades, they now know that consumers and purchasers will use their new found knowledge to vote with their feet, and their pocketbooks.

Markets work if consumers are informed, and the beauty of the grades is that they are simple enough to do that.  Lifesaving work is most often done by the miracle workers in hospitals wielding scalpels, microscopes, medications, lasers, gauze, latex, disinfectants and needles.  To be sure, these folks are heros.  But lifesaving work can also be done, indirectly, by data jockeys wielding spreadsheets and press releases.  Leapfrog, I give you an “A.”

– Loveland