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Medicare to Hospitals: The Patient is Always Right

Posted Nov 10 2011 4:13am

Starting in fiscal year 2014, Medicare will start rewarding hospitals with high quality care and penalizing hospitals with low quality care.  The rewards and penalties will be financial in nature. High-quality hospitals will receive a bonus and low-quality hospitals will receive a financial penalty.  There is a lot of existing documentation on this hospital value-based purchasing (HVBP) program such as:

One component of the HVBP is patient satisfaction.  Some policy experts believe that patient satisfaction is of the utmost importance.  If Medicare evaluates hospitals based on patient satisfaction, then hospitals will compete to improve how well patients are satisfied. A New York Times article already mentions some of the efforts hospitals are undertaking to improve patient satisfaction .  For example,

  • Improving the quality of food
  • Renovating units
  • Creating more single units (compared to shared units)
  • Having nurses visit rooms hourly
  • Creating scripts for doctor-patient and nurse-patient interactions
  • Quicker response time ["Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pittsburgh expects all employees, from maintenance workers to doctors, to respond to a patient’s call light or find someone to offer assistance."]
  • Building more elevators.

Elevators!?!?!  It turns out that “NYU found that long waits at its elevators drove down its scores, so now it is building a new bank of elevators.”

Hospitals complain, however, that they may only have a limited ability to influence ratings.  This is certainly true in some cases. For instance, patient expectations of the standard of care they receive may vary regionally.  For example,

…some of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and the University of Chicago Medical Center, get lower marks from patients on most areas of patient experiences, according to the government’s Hospital Compare Web site .

So do many of New York City’s elite institutions…Some hospitals, like NYU, get bad patient reviews even as they score average or superior in measures of clinical care from the government and accreditation groups.

‘People in New York have very high expectations about what it means to be taken care of,’ said Dr. Katherine Hochman, an NYU physician. ‘When they don’t get their food on time and have to spend eight hours in the emergency department, well, that’s just not their image of what a world-class institution is.’

Further, many providers believe that indigent patients give physicians lower quality scores even though these patients receive the same care as do richer patients.  Hospitals with more Medicaid-eligible patients could receive lower patient satisfaction scores due to case mix alone rather than due to actual quality.

To account for these confounding factors, Medicare can institute a risk adjustment mechanism.  By including patient income (or Medicaid) status in their model, however, Medicare would implicitly be allowing hospitals to provide a lower standard of care to the poor. Alternatively, if the poor do in fact give lower satisfaction scores, than hospitals may have an incentive to avoid these patients.

Similarly, including regional indicators in the risk adjustment model can also be problematic.  If New Yorkers have higher standards than individuals from Iowa, then one may want to normalize performance regional.  If CMS adopts this specifications, hospitals in essence would only be compared against their local peers.  Areas which have consistently below average care–in terms of patient satisfaction–may not be punished if they are the ‘best of the worst’ in their area.

Although patient satisfaction is not always correlated with high quality medical care, paying hospitals more for care that meets their patients’ needs does seem to be a sensible solution.

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