Ratings of hospitals may contradict their advertising, prompt low scorers to improve, health-care journalist says

Hospital rankings have been making news. Most recently, U.S. News and World Report ranked more than 5,000 U.S. hospitals and most in Kentucky. But the bigger news were the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rankings of 3,662 hospitals, also including most in Kentucky.

The release of ratings by the federal agency, over the objections of the hospital industry and its allies in Congress, “sends a message that patients have a right to know what’s going on inside the hospitals they entrust with their lives or those of their family members,” Trudy Lieberman says in her latest “Thinking About Health” column for the Rural Health News Service.

“The ratings reveal a contradiction between scientifically measured evidence and the advertising hospitals use to build their brand,” Leiberman writes. “Hospitals like to tell their communities about new cancer treatments or new children’s wings, not mediocre ratings. . . . Those of us who have written about hospitals know that smart patients need to look way beyond the nightly advertising on TV.”

The hospital industry argued that the ratings “may not take into account that many hospitals treat low-income patients with complex conditions and, thus, may not be fair to providers,” Lieberman notes. “But as Leah Binder who heads The Leapfrog Group, which advocates for patient safety, has noted on Forbes.com, the letter sent by the senators did not mention responsibility to patients who may suffer harm in a hospital. The British Medical Journal reported in May that researchers who examined the scientific evidence concluded that in 2013 medical errors were the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease and cancer. That’s cause for alarm and may be a reason why CMS didn’t bow to political pressure.”

The ratings may prompt hospitals to improve, Lieberman says. “Hospitals may also fear that consumers will see the stars, which are easy to understand, dig into the numbers behind them, ask questions, and perhaps choose other facilities if they can. If that happens, CEOs may feel mighty uncomfortable going before their boards and explaining why they received only one or two stars.”

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