Investigation: Joint Commission rarely revokes accreditation from hospitals that put patients at risk

Hospital lobby
An investigation found that the Joint Commission rarely revokes accreditation from hospitals that put patients at risk. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

Though the Joint Commission is the accrediting organization for a vast majority of U.S. hospitals, it rarely revokes that seal of approval for facilities out of compliance with Medicare rules, according to a new investigation.

The Wall Street Journal dug into Joint Commission inspection reports from 2014 through 2016. In 2014, about 350 hospitals with Joint Commission accreditation were in violation of Medicare requirements that year, and about a third of those facilities went on to have additional violations in 2014, 2015 and 2016. About 80% of U.S. hospitals are accredited by the commission.

The Joint Commission revoked accreditation for just 1% of hospitals out of compliance with Medicare. More than 30 hospitals retained their accreditations even though the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services determined that their violations were significant enough to cause, or likely cause, serious patient injury or death.

“It’s clearly a failed system and time for a change,” said Ashish Jha, M.D., a health policy researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a practicing internist.  He added that the investigation “shows accreditation is basically meaningless—it doesn’t mean a hospital is safe.”

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Mark Chassin, M.D., CEO of the Joint Commission, told the WSJ that the commission does not routinely revoke accreditation because its focus is more on preventing incidents than on penalizing hospitals. The group’s mission, he said, is to “work closely with health-care organizations to help them improve the care they provide.”

Federal health officials decided against making accreditors release secret inspection reports. CMS pitched the controversial idea in April but decided not to make the records public last month. About 90% of hospitals are overseen directly by accreditors like the Joint Commission.

The commission argued that the federal proposal would increase costs and hinder patient safety. CMS’ decision to back down was criticized by watchdog organizations like The Leapfrog Group.

The Joint Commission includes some details from its inspections publicly online, but details are scant, even for organizations that received a “preliminary denial of accreditation."