News organization's hospital ratings may rely on bad data

Quality rankings for hospitals have come under scrutiny before, as critics argue their inconsistencies confuse consumers. But new research suggests many such rankings are based on flawed data.

Researchers, led by Bala Hota, M.D., of Rush University Medical Center, analyzed the data used by U.S. News & World Report for its hospital rankings after the publication gave the Chicago academic medical center the lowest possible rating of one star. They found that U.S. News incorporated numerous patient events, such as pressure ulcers, that were present upon admission as marks against the hospital’s quality, according to research published in The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.  

This discrepancy led the team to compare other hospitals’ own data to their U.S. News ratings. Further analysis found U.S. News often incorporated false-positive event rates into its data from high-volume and high-transfer hospitals. These results demonstrate the need for improved transparency for quality ratings methodology, a frequent refrain of critics of the ratings status quo, according to the researchers.

"People have argued and theorized that if you take care of a lot of very sick people or have a lot of transfers, then the data could be biased," Hota said in a study announcement. "This study proves that. It shows that data is not perfect, and misunderstandings in the data can negatively portray a hospital."

The research follows extensive controversy this year over another high-profile quality ratings system, that of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; after CMS postponed the release of the data earlier in 2016, congressional leaders sought to further delay the ratings, arguing the methodology used by the agency remains suspect, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

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