Quality measures are going through growing pains

The quality-measurement enterprise in U.S. health care is troubled. Physicians, hospitals, and health plans view measurement as burdensome, expensive, inaccurate, and indifferent to the complexity of care delivery. Patients and their caregivers believe that performance reporting misses what matters most to them and fails to deliver the information they need to make good decisions.

Thus begins a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. It was accompanied by another, entitled, “Getting More Performance from Performance Measurement.” These represent the rumblings of discontent with the status of current efforts to measure the quality of health care patients are getting.

Everyone wants high-quality health care. It’s obvious in the abstract. But how do we know what that is? It’s well known that health care delivery varies widely across the country. This was shown many years ago by the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, which documented astonishing differences in how medicine was practiced, and of course therefore how much it cost, even between places right next door to each other. These variations persist today. Why?

The diseases and disorders being treated don’t vary like that. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that local medical culture and traditions play a huge role. When a new physician comes to the area, he or she tends to fall in line with how things are done there. The obvious goal here should be to deliver the best and most effective health care — not skimping on useful care but not overdoing things and adding risk to the patient in the bargain. How can we do that? These days everybody is trying to figure that out, and our current efforts, as discussed in the above articles, aren’t doing as well as they could.

A key distinction to understand is the difference between process measures and outcome measures. A process measure is something that keeps track of a particular activity that we know or assume will lead to better outcomes. A good example is washing our hands. Documenting that we did that is a process measure. We know, however, that it will decrease the number of hospital-acquired infections, an outcome measure. Marking the surgical site before surgery is a process measure; eliminating wrong-site surgeries is an outcome measure.

Unfortunately, very quickly things get more complicated than these simple examples. One chronic complaint from physicians is that we are held responsible for outcomes over which we have no power to influence the results. Another complaint is that, as with medical credentialing (I wrote about that swamp here), there are a host of players involved in performance measures and many have their own metrics that differ from each other. From the second essay:

The current measurement paradigm, however, does not live up to its potential. Many observers fear that a proliferation of measures is leading to measurement fatigue without commensurate results. An analysis of 48 state and regional measure sets found that they included more than 500 different measures, only 20 percent of which were used by more than one program. Similarly, a study of 29 private health plans identified approximately 550 distinct measures, which overlapped little with the measures used by public programs.

A mess like that is a prescription for cynicism among hospitals and physicians — and failure. We need a much smaller, much more manageable set of measurements that everybody agrees are real indicators of good medical care. I think this means, among other things, that we can’t have every payer concocting their own scheme. That is asking for chaos.

We have had some successes in linking a process measure to an outcome measure. A good example is planned delivery of infants who were almost, but not quite, at term. Sometimes there is a good medical reason for doing this. But in the past this was often done for the convenience of the doctor or the parents. Sometimes that meant a baby was delivered too early and had to spend time in a neonatal intensive care unit. As a result of close monitoring of early deliveries, of making sure they were really medically necessary, the rate of early delivery has fallen to a quarter of what it was several years ago. That’s real progress, and it came from performance improvement projects. The author is optimistic:

The science and practice of performance measurement have advanced substantially in the past decade, and increased transparency regarding results means that we know more quickly what works and what doesn’t. Furthermore, all stakeholder groups are now invested in getting more performance out of measurement, which should ultimately drive the care improvement that patients need and deserve.

Maybe. I know this is all inevitable and good for patients in the long run. But I think we will have many more growing pains — false leads, useless measurements — before we get there.

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Keeping Your Kids Out of the Emergency Room: A Guide to Childhood Injuries and IllnessesYour Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must FaceHow to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

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