Dallas reporters use AHRQ data to measure patient safety

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Dallas Morning News continues its 19-month investigation into patient safety at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Parkland Memorial Hospital.

The project, “First, Do No Harm: An investigation of patient safety in Dallas hospitals,” is behind the website’s paywall but The Dallas Morning News has granted AHCJ members access. To find out how to access the stories, please click here and log in as an AHCJ member.

Among the latest reporting:

Dallas Morning News reporters Ryan McNeill and Daniel Lathrop took advantage of AHRQ’s Patient Safety Indicator (PSI) software, typically used internally by hospitals, to process 9 million publicly available patient records from Texas hospitals, all of which came from between

Parkland, the prominent local hospital that has earned scrutiny on numerous prior occasions, was just the most notable of a number of area hospitals that came up short (and generated headlines), but our interest lies more with the reporters’ investigative methodology as well as the path they’ve blazed for broader hospital quality reporting.

All their work was done in consultation with experts in the field, including academics, government officials and hospital administrators. An outside review indicated McNeill and Lathrop used the software properly, and their results were in line with a similar public analysis. But that’s not to say it was a simple process.

The newspaper spent six months analyzing nearly 9 million state hospital discharge records using Patient Safety Indicators, or PSI, software. This highly sophisticated system was designed for the federal government as a tool to measure potentially preventable complications among hospital patients.

The PSIs do not present a complete safety picture because they are based on administrative data — a summary of diagnoses, procedures and outcomes derived from patients’ medical charts, as opposed to a complete review of all medical records.

It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s one of the best available.

PSIs “reflect quality of care inside hospitals,” according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It released the PSI software in 2003 and periodically updates it, most recently in August. The News used that version for its final analysis.

The software analyzes the administrative data that nearly every hospital in Texas reports to the state. No patient-identifying information is included.

The results on 15 PSIs are statistically “risk-adjusted” because some hospitals treat a disproportionate share of unhealthy patients, who face a greater risk of potentially preventable complications. Rates from eight of the indicators are used to determine a hospital’s patient safety “composite score.”

The AHRQ has just started posting some PSI measures on Hospital Compare, and the Texas health department plans to follow suit in 2013, but reporters looking to get their hands on a broader swath of the data will still have to follow the Dallas duo’s do-it-yourself approach.

The reporters’ work drew criticism from the Texas Hospital Association, which said the methodology was “not intended for use in public reporting.” McNeill refutes its claims in a blog post. Daniel K. Podolsky, president of UT Southwestern Medical Center, also sent a letter criticizing the reporting. George Rodrigue, managing editor of The Dallas Morning News, published a point-by-point response to Podolsky’s letter.

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