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Searching for the Medical ‘Black Box’

A black leather briefcase with words The Big Reveal inside as aWould hospital employees choose to receive medical care from their own hospital? Wouldn’t you want to know how hospital employees truthfully rated their own hospital’s safety culture?

Yep, me too!

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) released their Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture results. This survey is very important for many reasons. One key reason is that these results correlate to infection rates and patient outcomes.

When you think about it, who better to ask about quality of service within a hospital than the frontline worker themselves – staff, nurses, technicians, etc.? In fact, when noted physician, Marty Makary and his staff performed a joint study with risk management firm Pascal Metrics, they found “hospitals that scored well on the staff survey had lower rates of surgical complications and other important patient outcomes.” (Marty Makary, MD, “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care.”, Page 28)

Unfortunately, the results from the AHRQ survey are not meant for public consumption. They are meant only to be viewed by participating hospital administrators and the government. You see, this type of survey is not mandatory. In fact, U.S. hospitals participate in these surveys with the condition the results remain out of the public eye. Because hospital competition can be fierce within certain markets, reputations can be marred by having a low safety score – which adversely affects hospital revenue. Unlike the missing black box from Malaysian Flight 370, it appears this ‘black box’ of critical survey results is meant to remain hidden.

After learning of the 2014 AHRQ survey release, I quickly found that only 653 hospitals around the country participated in this non-mandatory survey (representing about 13 percent of approximately 5,000 hospitals in the U.S.). A miniscule 55 hospitals responded from 11 states within the region where Iowa was placed. The report from AHRQ does not list the participating hospitals, for reasons mentioned earlier. After a few email inquiries, I was able to learn that only 28 Iowa hospitals participated in this survey in 2012 and a paltry 9 hospitals in 2014 (Iowa has 118 community hospitals).

In all fairness, other research firms such as Pascal Metrics, also perform these studies. But once again, we have little knowledge on which Iowa hospitals participate and how often – let alone the results that come from these reports.

Dr. Makary’s view on lack of transparency for safety culture surveys is spot on:
“While I sympathize with hospitals who feel threatened by transparency of safety-culture results, I sympathize more with misled patients….In short, data transparency, properly weighted, would empower patients to make informed decisions about where they should spend their health care dollar.”

Compared to other developed countries, U.S. citizens pay world-class prices to our hospitals, but, in return, we receive little or no transparency on what matters most to us – our safety – and, in some cases, our lives.

This topic should be of great interest to employers when initiating (and leading) discussions with the healthcare provider community. Payers are entitled to know what they are paying for and, what the contents of the black box reveal.

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  1. Kris Jensen says

    Each day I am more appalled at the condition of the US healthcare system and our lack of focus on the things we should be doing to hold it accountable. This is the kind of information that would help us create a real foundation for healthcare reform instead of what people try to label as reform.

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