Perception is reality: Why hospital quality data is so important

When people go to a hospital, they assume they'll receive quality care--and that nurses will answer the call bell and fill up their water pitcher when it's empty. But while hospitals across the country are hoping to differentiate themselves by talking about how they provide quality care, is quality care really a differentiator when "hospitals exceed 90 percent compliance on most of the Joint Commission's 31 quality measures?"

Perhaps a better differentiator would be how well hospitals put meaning behind their quality scores.


Research shows that approximately 60 percent of adults go to the Internet for health information. Now, they can access hospital quality data online on sites like the Joint Commission's, CMS' Hospital Compare, or on informal sites such as AngiesList, and

Even Consumer Reports, long known for its product guides, has joined the list and publishes patient satisfaction scores for more than 3,400 U.S. hospitals.

Despite the glut of information, consumers rarely use it when deciding where they'll go to receive care. According to aConsumer Reports study, only 11 percent of those surveyed chose a hospital because of its record for treating a specific condition, and only 2 percent made the decision based on hospital ratings they read in a book, a magazine or online.

If people are going to the Internet to find health information, why aren't they going there to look at the hospital quality data? Blogger KevinMD surmises that people don't know where to find the information. And if people do find the information, they may not understand what they're reading. Clinical terminology like acute myocardial infarction (AMI) can sound like jargon to the untrained person, so it's easy to understand how confusing it can be to understand hospital quality data.

Maybe the bigger problem is that there are so many sources of quality data, how do people know who to believe? Or more importantly, how do they interpret conflicting results?

According to a report published by the American Psychological Association, when it's hard to interpret numbers, people are tempted to make decisions based on cost or how they feel at the moment. Still others base their decisions on word-of-mouth referrals from their friends and family.

Such confusion presents a real opportunity for hospitals. Rather than letting people find the health ratings online and hope they understand what they mean, hospitals can make it easier for people to find this information. There are lots of ways hospitals can do this, whether it's posting the information on your Web site and Facebook page or having your CEO write about it in his blog or in a letter to the community. Or you could show that patients are happy with the care they've received by posting patient comments online.

But it's not enough to just give consumers the data, it's important to put it into context. HCAHPS scores, Magnet status and Joint Commission accreditation evaluate your hospital on different criteria. Make it relevant to consumers by cutting through the jargon. For example, if your hospital has achieved Magnet status, communicate that this is the gold standard for nursing care and patients can expect the highest level of care at your hospital.

Remember to always put your best foot forward. If you have great clinical scores and so-so patient satisfaction scores, don't feel obligated to post your patient satisfaction numbers. Instead, proudly point to your great clinical scores and explain why they're important. And when you're other grades improve, you can bring them to the forefront as well.

So is hospital quality data important? You betcha. But remember that people will believe what you tell them--as long as you have the data to back it up. So don't be shy. Make it easy for people to find your great quality scores and explain why they're important. This type of public relations can truly make a difference.

Jenn Riggle is an associate vice president and social media leader of the Health Practice at CRT/tanaka. She has 20 years of public relations experience in issues such as health care marketing and public relations, social media in health care, national media relations and strategic communications planning. She regularly engages in social media, both on Twitter (@riggrl) and frequently blogs about social media and health care issues for The Buzz Bin, a PR and marketing blog.