Tag Archives: usa today

Data shows disconnect between patient perception, hospital performance

Sifting through Medicare hospital rating data, USA Today reporters Steve Sternberg and Christopher Schnaars found an enlightening disconnect between patients’ subjective ratings of hospitals and hospital performance on quantitative measures such as death and readmission rates.

“This is a very important finding,” says Donald Berwick, director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, adding that though patient-survey data offer critical insights into how it feels to be a patient at different hospitals, patients’ perceptions don’t tell the whole story.

The story is packaged with an infographic that allows readers to look up ratings for local hospitals.

AHCJ resources

ProPublica investigates ties between doc groups, industry

With an assist from Sen. Chuck Grassley, ProPublica senior reporters Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein, AHCJ’s board president, have published their latest data-heavy investigation (USA Today version). This time, their journey into the myriad avenues pharmaceutical companies pursue to influence physicians has taken them into the world of professional societies and annual conferences. The duo writes that despite the power of these groups, their dependence upon millions and millions of dollars in industry funding has often slipped under the radar.

Professional groups … are a logical target for the makers of drugs and medical devices. They set national guidelines for patient treatments, lobby Congress about Medicare reimbursement issues, research funding and disease awareness, and are important sources of treatment information for the public.

Their strongest anecdote comes from the Heart Rhythm Society, a group which, in 2010, pulled in about $8 million – half their total income – directly from manufacturers of the drugs and devices their members specialize in prescribing for, or implanting in, patients. The society has started to disclose these relationships, but perhaps not to limit them, the reporters write. “’This is our business,’ said Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, the incoming society president. ‘We either get out of the business or we manage these relationships. That’s what we’ve chosen to do.’”

The companies also pay two-thirds of the society’s board members speaking or consulting fees, a situation Weber and Ornstein found is far from unusual. In addition to these financial conflicts, the reporters gathered some fascinating examples of just how deep industry influence can run. My personal favorite comes from the conference of a well-known collection of cardiologists.

Last month, the American College of Cardiology attached tracking devices to doctors’ conference ID badges. Many physicians were unaware that exhibitors had paid to receive real-time data about who visited their booths, including names, job titles and how much time they spent.

For more examples, I recommend Robert Durrell’s photographs from the 2011 Heart Rhythm Society annual conference, which show dozens of industry-sponsored objects alongside the amount of money each company paid for that particular privilege. Dan Nguyen and Nicolas Rapp put together an infographic that expands upon a similar theme.

Much of the disclosure data the ProPublica team depended on for their reports was released in response to a request for informationGrassley sent out in late 2009. His investigation has started to yield some preliminary results.

There are fledgling efforts to push medical societies toward stricter limits on industry funding: 34 groups have signed a voluntary code of conduct calling for public disclosure of funding and limits on how many people on guideline-writing panels have industry ties.

“The general feeling is that the societies need to be independent of the influence of companies,” said Dr. Norman B. Kahn Jr., chief executive of the Council of Medical Specialty Societies, which helped draft the code.

HHS publishes insurance prices, Consumer Reports explains reform

The first big wave of health care reform implementation has brought with it a mini-boom in consumer-oriented explainer sites and publications. You may remember the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Reform Source from our implementation coverage. In the days since, it’s been joined by offerings from Consumer Reports and the federal government, among others.

govSince its launch this summer, Healthcare.gov has slowly evolved, adding explainers, tools and a Spanish-language version. Now, it has officially entered the meat-and-potatoes, utility-belt phase with an insurance search tool that includes detailed pricing and coverage information (press release). According to USA Today‘s Alison Young, the tool indexes 4,400 plans from 225 insurers, and will be updated monthly.

And while it caters to consumers with things like monthly premiums, out-of-pocket costs and deductibles, the tool also includes some great data points for reporters, including covered services, percent of applications denied in the past three months, and percent of applicants charged more than the base price. One caveat: All the information is hidden behind a little search wizard, and you’ll have to enter demographic information and click a few tabs before you get to the good stuff.

And finally, as an antidote to the sometimes bureaucratic HHS site, the Consumers Union guide to the first six months of health care reform (Six-page PDF) is heavy on bullet points and easy-to-understand, categorical statements like “Sick children can’t be denied coverage” and “Preventive health care and screenings covered.”

Each major topic area is broken down into four key elements: “What’s New?”; “You may benefit if you”; “What you get”; and “The fine print.” The last subheading is where the guide really shines, as it briefly details exactly how an insurer can slip out of that particular provision.

Agreement lets disciplined nurses work in 24 states

ProPublica’s Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein are back on the disciplined caregivers beat, this time cooperating with USA Today to expose a licensing gap that makes it easier for disciplined nurses to find work in other states. The licensing agreement in question was signed a decade ago as 24 states agreed to recognize each other’s licenses in an attempt to alleviate care shortages by allowing nurses to work where they are needed most.

In some cases, nurses have retained clean multistate licenses after at least one compact state had banned them. They have ignored their patients’ needs, stolen their pain medication, forgotten crucial tests or missed changes in their condition, records show.

Critics say the compact may actually multiply the risk to patients. There is no central licensing for the compact, so policing nurses is left to the vigilance of member states.

Outside the compact, each state licenses and disciplines its own nurses. But within it, states effectively agree to allow in nurses they have never reviewed.

Ornstein and Weber found numerous instances in which a caregiver disciplined in one state was able to work for an extended period in another without being red-flagged, and are helping spark a debate over the costs, benefits and implementations of such agreements.

Reporters use county rankings for analysis

On Feb. 17, rankings of the relative health of counties in each American state were released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin. The rankings used data from 13 distinct (mostly federal) sources, including the National Center for Health Statistics, the Census Bureau and the Dartmouth Atlas. With that data, researchers computed eight separate composite scores, which were then weighted to produce one overall score. The ratings are navigated by clicking through a national map to the state and county level. Enough clicks will even bring you to the raw data itself. The state only compares counties, not states, because data collection varies from state to state and isn’t always standardized.

logo1It’s a combination of data, analysis and an intuitive interface, and journalists have been quick to localize the story. Many reporters reached beyond the easy numbers (“our county is 67th!”) to use the system for deeper stories.

For example, Robin Erb of the Detroit Free Press dissected the ratings process and how individual factors and disparities played into them before launching into the standard state breakdown.

Writing for Health News Florida, David Gulliver took a broader state view and considered how various socioeconomic factors played into the rankings of Florida counties. Gulliver’s analysis:

The strong-performing coastal counties, like Collier, St. John’s Sarasota, Charlotte, Palm Beach and Broward, all benefit from having heavy concentrations of retirees who have guaranteed health care access via Medicare. …

[Dr. Kevin Sherin, director of public health for Orange County] said that in Florida’s tourism and service industries, workers tend to be transient and less likely to have insurance or consistent primary care.

He noted the low-ranked counties were some of the poorest in Florida, like Union and Bradford in the rural north, and Glades and Okeechobee, with heavy populations of migrant workers. Those counties also tend to have more people who speak only Spanish, Creole or other languages.

Gulliver localized the story on a county level for his Sarasota Health News site.

In USA Today, Mary Brophy Marcus took the national view and looked for broad trends and generalizations. Marcus’ story was accompanied by a map by Frank Pompa highlighting each state’s healthiest and least healthy counties.