‘Consumer Reports’ Tackles Hospital Safety

By Alvin Tran

(Lab Science Career: Flickr)

(Lab Science Career: Flickr)

Ever used Consumer Reports to check out an appliance or help decide which car to buy?  Now you can do the same thing with many hospitals.  Consumer Reports, best known for testing consumer products, released its first-ever hospital safety ratings and many of California’s most prestigious hospitals, including several from the Bay Area, were among them.

Consumer Reports judged roughly 1,100 of the country’s 6,300 hospitals in six different categories — from hospital-acquired infections to mortality — and then combined scores for a final overall safety score out of 100 possible points. Perhaps the most surprising news is that the highest scoring hospital, Billings Clinic in Montana, scored only a 72. The lowest scoring in the country was Chicago’s Sacred Heart Hospital, with a meager 16. The reason so few hospitals were ranked overall is because many hospitals simply do not consistently track safety data.

“We think all hospitals need to make this the top priority.”

Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, sounded a note of frustration on the difficulty of acquiring complete data. “It’s just time for hospitals to accept this is a high priority,” he told me in an interview. “They need to make it so. They need to share what’s going on with the public. And we all need to hold them accountable.”

In Northern California, many hospitals could provide all the data but didn’t score exceptionally well. Stanford Hospital and Clinics received an overall score of 57 out of 100, UCSF Medical Center a 48, and San Francisco General Hospital a 47. Bakersfield Heart Hospital received a 68 making it the highest scoring hospital in California.

“I don’t think there is perfection in these areas at any hospital currently but it is definitely something that all hospitals are working toward, and San Francisco General is no exception,” says Rachael Kagan, a spokeswoman for San Francisco General Hospital.

Kagan also advised consumers to consider the ratings among others currently available. “We’re shown to be above average in some areas and below average in others. I think that’s a fair statement.” Kagan said she plans to review the ratings further to see how scores were calculated, but says she doesn’t find the Consumer Reports’ ratings worrisome. “We’re very committed to improving in these areas,” she asserted. “We have initiatives around all of these areas that are (the) subject of this report and many more that are not included in this report.”

Santa thinks even the most renowned hospitals can improve. “We do have high expectations for safety at Consumer Reports,” Santa told me. “We think all hospitals need to make this the top priority and all hospitals need to get better.” According to Santa, it is difficult for many hospitals to make safety their main priority when there are other areas including research and teaching to focus on. “That’s a challenge for teaching hospitals, for bigger public or county hospitals. Having said that, it’s doable,” Santa added.

And what is Santa’s advice to the Bay Area’s teaching hospitals with so many priorities?

“To get better at this, they will need to make safety a priority. It’s likely that means they’ll need to figure out how to teach it to their medical students and residents. They’ll need to figure out how to do research to figure out how to improve it. And they will need to work more with their patients to make progress,” Santa explained, who pointed to Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas as a high scoring hospital because it makes safety a top priority.

Consumer Reports did mention several limitations in its new report. For starters, only 18 percent of all U.S. hospitals were rated. Veterans Affairs hospitals and children’s hospitals were not included because they currently are not required by the government to measure the clarity of communication with patients. Kaiser Permanente hospitals were excluded from the ratings because they did not report data in one or more of the measures.

Consumer Reports has always prided itself on our independence from industry and our independence from other groups weighing in on a topic,” Santa added. “While we look at other groups in terms of ratings, these are what we think are the most reliable indicators for consumers in terms of safety.”

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