Hospital ratings can be more confusing than helpful

Hospitals, like everything else these days, are big business. The industry has been consolidating for several years now, with over 100 hospital mergers and acquisitions reported in 2012.

But as the big hospital chains absorb smaller and financially weaker facilities, consumers are facing a lot of confusion about which hospitals will give them the services they and their loved ones need.

And conflicting scores from several nationally recognized hospital ratings systems are making it even harder for people seeking quality health care, according to a new report from the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality.

The study, which involved researchers from Johns Hopkins as well as Harvard, University of California Davis, University of California San Francisco and Vanderbilt University, looked at ratings from the from U.S. News & World Report's Best Hospitals, Healthgrades America's 100 Best Hospitals, Leapfrog's Hospital Safety Score and Consumer Reports' Health Safety Score.

Using data from those hospital ratings, the authors found was no one hospital ranked as a high-performing facility in all four lists and that only 10 percent of the nearly 850 hospital rated as high-performing by one rating system had the same rank on another system.

"Our team wanted to better understand how many hospitals were ranked as a high performer by one system but as a low performer by another," J. Matthew Austin, the assistant professor at the Armstrong Institute who led the study, said in a press statement. "The lack of agreement across the four rating systems is a concern for consumers, mainly because the different ratings could provide a conflicting message on where to seek care."

Part of the problem is each of the guides uses its own particular system to evaluate the institutions, and that each system has different ways of measuring such factors as performance, adherence to best safety standards and overall reputation.

"Each of the four rating systems measured a different construct, used its own rating methodology and weighted each measure differently," Austin noted. "The differences in the measures used and the weights assigned to each measure are likely causes of the discrepancies among hospital ratings."

The study suggests that the hospital guides should come to an agreement about key features of their ratings systems and explain their ranking practices to the public.

A standardization of those factors, Austin said, can help hospitals decide on how to best focus their efforts at improvement, while helping consumers make better-informed decisions about their medical care.