Hospitalists finding their role in hospital quality ratings

CMS considers how to assess socioeconomic factors


Since 2005 the government website Hospital Compare has publicly reported quality data on hospitals, with periodic updates of their performance, including specific measures of quality. But how accurately do the ratings reflect a hospital’s actual quality of care, and what do the ratings mean for hospitalists?

Dr. Kate Goodrich of the George Washington Hospital Center in Washington

Dr. Kate Goodrich

Hospital Compare provides searchable, comparable information to consumers on reported quality of care data submitted by more than 4,000 Medicare-certified hospitals, along with Veterans Administration and military health system hospitals. It is designed to allow consumers to select hospitals and directly compare their mortality, complication, infection, and other performance measures on conditions such as heart attacks, heart failure, pneumonia, and surgical outcomes.

The Overall Hospital Quality Star Ratings, which began in 2016, combine data from more than 50 quality measures publicly reported on Hospital Compare into an overall rating of one to five stars for each hospital. These ratings are designed to enhance and supplement existing quality measures with a more “customer-centric” measure that makes it easier for consumers to act on the information. Obviously, this would be helpful to consumers who feel overwhelmed by the volume of data on the Hospital Compare website, and by the complexity of some of the measures.

A posted call in spring 2019 by CMS for public comment on possible methodological changes to the Overall Hospital Quality Star Ratings received more than 800 comments from 150 different organizations. And this past summer, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services decided to delay posting the refreshed Star Ratings in its Hospital Compare data preview reports for July 2019. The agency says it intends to release the updated information in early 2020. Meanwhile, the reported data – particularly the overall star ratings – continue to generate controversy for the hospital field.

Hospitalists’ critical role

Hospitalists are not rated individually on Hospital Compare, but they play important roles in the quality of care their hospital provides – and thus ultimately the hospital’s publicly reported rankings. Hospitalists typically are not specifically incentivized or penalized for their hospital’s performance, but this does happen in some cases.

“Hospital administrators absolutely take note of their hospital’s star ratings. These are the people hospitalists work for, and this is definitely top of their minds,” said Kate Goodrich, MD, MHS, director of the Center for Clinical Standards and Quality at CMS. “I recently spoke at an SHM annual conference and every question I was asked was about hospital ratings and the star system,” noted Dr. Goodrich, herself a practicing hospitalist at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington.

The government’s aim for Hospital Compare is to give consumers easy-to-understand indicators of the quality of care provided by hospitals, especially where they might have a choice of hospitals, such as for an elective surgery. Making that information public is also viewed as a motivator to help drive improvements in hospital performance, Dr. Goodrich said.

“In terms of what we measure, we try to make sure it’s important to patients and to clinicians. We have frontline practicing physicians, patients, and families advising us, along with methodologists and PhD researchers. These stakeholders tell us what is important to measure and why,” she said. “Hospitals and all health providers need more actionable and timely data to improve their quality of care, especially if they want to participate in accountable care organizations. And we need to make the information easy to understand.”

Dr. Goodrich sees two main themes in the public response to its request for comment. “People say the methodology we use to calculate star ratings is frustrating for hospitals, which have found it difficult to model their performance, predict their star ratings, or explain the discrepancies.” Hospitals taking care of sicker patients with lower socioeconomic status also say the ratings unfairly penalize them. “I work in a large urban hospital, and I understand this. They say we don’t take that sufficiently into account in the ratings,” she said.

“While our modeling shows that current ratings highly correlate with performance on individual measures, we have asked for comment on if and how we could adjust for socioeconomic factors. We are actively considering how to make changes to address these concerns,” Dr. Goodrich said.

In August 2019, CMS acknowledged that it plans to change the methodology used to calculate hospital star ratings in early 2021, but has not yet revealed specific details about the nature of the changes. The agency intends to propose the changes through the public rule-making process sometime in 2020.


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