Hospitals learning not to fear public data

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.

In HealthLeaders magazine, a publication that targets “healthcare executives and senior decision-makers,” Cheryl Clark writes that the recent explosion of publicly available health care quality data may force hospitals to change the way they approach unflattering numbers.

Encouragingly, Clark quotes officials who have found that the only way to deal with all these new numbers is not to ignore or discredit them, a tempting option that has often been the default in the past, but instead to release even more data, and to better educate the public about the numbers that are out there.

(James) Conway says that whatever they do, hospitals should not do what they used to when negative stories arose, “which was lay low, hope it vanishes, and take a ‘this too shall pass’ attitude. Or, if there’s data that says, for example, your coronary artery bypass graft profile is horrible, historically what hospitals have done is to discredit the data. It’s sort of like a pigeon in a shooting game.

“But what we’ve learned is that the organization must ask a critical question: Could this data be right?”

That, of course, is where health journalists come in.

Charles Ornstein, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and an investigative healthcare reporter with ProPublica, says hospital executives should get used to heightened attention. The AHCJ is beefing up efforts to educate reporters on how to find and interpret quality statistics about healthcare providers, where to see inspection reports, and how to compare patient experience, readmission, and mortality rates.

“More reporters are realizing the treasure trove of information they can find,” he says. “For decades, hospitals fought to keep this information out of the public domain. But now that it is public, we as journalists have an obligation to make it relevant.”

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