When hospital success stories aren't the whole picture

Personal stories and anecdotes can be a valuable tool in healthcare, but some hospitals use them to obscure lackluster care quality ratings while the media look the other way, argues an opinion piece from Health News Review.

New York-Presbyterian Hospital has run a series of ads in which patients share their stories, Trudy Lieberman writes. In one, boxer Daniel Jacobs describes how a procedure at New York-Presbyterian to remove a tumor averted career-ending paralysis. Another features 7-year-old Heather McNamara recounting how multiple facilities turned her away when she needed a delicate procedure to remove a tumor intertwining her blood vessels and vital organs. New York-Presbyterian eventually successfully performed the procedure.

But these individual success stories mask the hospital's care quality data, Lieberman writes; for example, in 2015 the Leapfrog Group gave New York-Presbyterian's Columbia University and Cornell Weill campuses an overall "B" safety score, and found both campuses had below-average scores for bedsore prevention, blood and urinary tract infections, and post-colon procedure surgical site infections. And patient satisfaction data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services showed the hospital only scored 3 out of 5 stars.

Despite this, advertising like New York-Presbyterian's reaches a much wider audience than the safety and satisfaction data. And the press has been reluctant to further investigate this hard data, Lieberman writes, because the hospital industry brings in so much advertising revenue, much like newspapers once hesitated to cover questionable practices in the lucrative car dealership business.

The problem is far from insurmountable, Leapfrog CEO Leah Binder told Health News Review, as the group's surveys find consumers are lenient when hospitals make mistakes, but far less so when they perceive lack of data transparency. To address the problem, the press must be less timid, and hospitals must be more willing to discuss their quality ratings.

One of the biggest challenges to meaningful outcomes transparency is hospitals' use of it as a marketing technique, releasing selective, favorable data that deprives patients of the full context and fails to incentivize improvement, FierceHealthcare previously reported. In March, a JAMA study found part of the problem is that online hospital advertising is often designed to seem like it isn't advertising.

To learn more:
- read the opinion piece
- here's the Leapfrog data (.pdf)